Behind the Song: Ball of Confusion by The Temptations

The Temptations’ 1970 classic “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today)” was, and remains, one of the archetypes of a genre dubbed psychedelic soul. 

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What is Psychedelic Soul?

The style became popular in the late ’60s as a collusion between rock, R&B, and the drug culture which had already embraced the mind-expanding dynamic of predominantly white, hippie musicians. Black groups as disparate as Sly & the Family Stone and The Crazy World of Arthur Brown helped usher in the sound, exposing it to a larger audience eager for a similar psychedelically oriented experience.

The Chambers Brothers, with their hit “Time Has Come Today,” were arguably the first to promote the concept to a larger forum when that ground-breaking track, first recorded in 1966, was finally released in 1968. Although edited from its 11-minute album length to a more manageable 3:52, the long version—which included heavily reverbed percussion, grungy, echo-laden guitars, and the immortal lyric my soul has been psychedelicized”—shattered preconceptions of how a Black group could drive soul music into areas once unknown. 

Motown’s Influence

None of this was lost on Motown Records, the largest and most successful Black-owned label based out of Detroit. Temptations singer Otis Williams approached producer/songwriter Norman Whitfield—who had already notched major successes for the group with co-writing credits on “(I Know) I’m Losing You” and “I Wish It Would Rain”—suggesting they adapt and update their sound to the changing times. 

The result was “Cloud Nine,” the group’s 1968 No. 6 smash produced by Whitfield and written with Barrett Strong. The Dennis Coffey wah-wah guitar open, congas, and throbbing bass line introduced a new, fresh approach. It didn’t hurt that recent lead vocalist Dennis Edwards’ gruff, streetwise voice kicked the song into orbit as the other four singers chased each other through the tune. It resulted in Motown’s first Grammy (for Best R&B Performance by Duo or Group).

That began a string of similarly conceived, socially relevant fare such as “Runaway Child, Running Wild,”  “Psychedelic Shack” in 1969, and the 12-minute “Smiling Faces Sometimes” in 1971. In the midst of this burgeoning frontier for the once relatively staid Motown was “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today),” a No. 3 pop charter from May 1970.

What’s The Big Deal?

Of all those aforementioned songs, “Ball of Confusion…” with its topical concepts, from the title down, has persevered over 50 years. 

Segregation, determination, demonstration, integration, aggravation, humiliation, / Obligation to our nationFear in the air, tension everywhere…/ Population out of hand, suicide, too many bills / So, round and around and around we go, / Where the world’s headed, nobody knows

Ball of confusion, /That’s what the world is today, hey.

The lyric The Beatles’ new record’s a gas, acknowledging the impact those four British white guys had on American soul stalwarts like The Temptations was, for its time, radical. 

How Was It Recorded?

Motown’s The Funk Brothers laid down the instrumental backing first. Then the singers arrived. Bassist Bob Babbitt, one of the players, remembers the session. “There was no song, just some musical ideas, some chord patterns, and part of a bass line he (Whitfield) played us,” Babbitt said speaking to Mojo magazine in 2009. “Norman knew what he wanted though, that it was going to be funky,” Babbitt continued. “He’d been listening to a lot of Hendrix, Sly & the Family Stone, that’s the sound he wanted to make the Motown sound.

“Putting it together was simple, we just did that one song in the three-hour session and we had enough time left over to eat some BLT sandwiches,” Babbitt added. “We didn’t know it was going to be political, because the lyrics weren’t written when the rhythm track was recorded.

“I heard the song four days later. It was a Saturday morning …They got the songs out quick in those days, especially in Detroit.”

The Temptations’ recording, clocking in at 4:09, was substantially edited from the original jam, which ran close to 12 minutes. Oddly, “…Confusion” was never included on an official Temptations non-compilation. The single initially appeared on The Temptations Greatest Hits Volume 2.

Who Else Recorded It? 

The most prominent post-Temptations cover was by ’80s alternative band Love and Rockets in 1987. While it wasn’t a huge hit, the 12” single was popular in dance clubs and on college radio, attracting a new, younger, hipper audience. Tina Turner also recorded a heavily electronic take in 1981, which charted Top 5 in Norway and helped kick-start her career revival when Capitol Records signed the singer based on the record. 

“Ball of Confusion…” has proven to be remarkably flexible, having also been covered by acts as diverse as Duran Duran, Widespread Panic, Anthrax, and Leon Bridges.

Will It Remain Relevant?

Most recently, snippets of the song were used in the trailer for the flim Nope in 2022, proving that the five-decade-old tune still has legs. With its universal themes and taut funk backbone, the song continues to be applicable about the planet’s current socio-political situation, almost as much as when it was initially released. It will likely stay pertinent for the foreseeable future, and, better still, you can dance to it.     

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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