The Temptations – “Ball Of Confusion,” Pop # 3, R&B # 2
By Joel Francis
The Daily Record
Clocking in at over four minutes, “Ball of Confusion” was an epic by Motown standards. The arrangement and themes, however, were very much in line with the top-shelf, psychedelic social commentary songwriter and producer Norman Whitfield had been consistently turning out.
Sonically and thematically, “Ball of Confusion” doesn’t stray from the formula Whitfield developed for the Temptation in 1968 with “Cloud Nine.”
If Sly Stone were Martin Luther, this is how he would have delivered his 95 Theses. In a cadence cribbed in Bob Dylan’s delivery from “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” Dennis Edwards lists his grievances: “segregation, determination, demonstration, integration, aggravation, humiliation, obligation.”
The arrangement is just as claustrophobic and frustrated as the lyrics, with nearly every instrument – electric organ, wah guitar, drums and vocals – threatening to strangle each other in the mix. Brief bursts of harmonica or horns provide the only moments of relief. Edwards handles the lion’s share of the singing, but once again the other four members tag-team lead duties. Bass singer Melvin Franklin memorably punctuates each verse with the adage of complacency – “and the band played on.”
“Ball of Confusion” isn’t exactly a fun song, but it is a lot of fun to listen to. The song was the Tempts’ second strong single of the 1970s, landing in the Top 5 on both the pop and R&B charts. It also marked their third straight solo Top 10 hit.
The complex number isn’t easy to replicate, but that hasn’t stopped others from trying. Shortly after the Tempts’ number had dropped in the charts, Berry Gordy handed the tune to another Motown group, the Undisputed Truth, to try their hand. A generation later, pop band Duran Duran and metal outfit Anthrax both released covers in the 1990s. The 21st century also saw a resurgence of interest in the song, with the Neville Brothers, Widespread Panic and Tesla all releasing covers.
The song also appeared as a centerpiece in the film “Sister Act Two: Back in the Habit” (featuring a young and then-unknown Lauryn Hill). It’s biggest distinction outside of Motown, however, is in kick-starting Tina Turner’s solo career in the early ‘80s. Turner’s reading appeared on a 1982 tribute album, it wasn’t a big hit in the United States or United Kingdom, but it did hook her up with the songwriters and producers who helmed Turner’s multi-platinum comeback effort, “Private Dancer.”
6 thoughts on “The Temptations – “Ball Of Confusion””
One of their greatest hits that could be applied to what’s going on today
Ball of Confusion was sung by the 4 Tops
Thanks for reading, Rick. I’ve never heard the Four Tops perform “Ball of Confusion,” but if you have a link I’d love to hear it.
Does anyone know who plays harmonica on the Temptations version? Was it one of the Funk Brothers?
Thanks for reading, Mark. The liner notes that accompany the year-by-year Motown box sets list all the musicians on each track. However, those sets are out of my price range (and out of print) and I haven’t been able to track down a copy of the notes. This is a long way of saying that I don’t know for sure who played the harmonica. My guess is that it was one of the Funk Brothers. Motown rarely went outside of its stable of musicians, particularly in the Detroit era.
According to Wikipedia the harmonica was played by Stevie Wonder!