The late 1960s’ is remembered for being a most turbulent period: race riots, Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy, and the subsequent election of Richard Nixon all had cataclysmic repercussions that reverberated throughout the country. It was the age of protests, with young men and women rising up to assert their desire for equal rights and to not be used as expendable pawns in a war with no moral basis.
By 1969, The Temptations had moved on from the sunny pop sounds of “My Girl” and “Get Ready” to a grittier, edgier sound that was reflected in records such as “I Can’t Get Next to You,” “Cloud Nine,” and “Runaway Child (Running Wild).” The sound was known as ‘psychedelic soul, combining traditional R&B backbeats with the effects laden, spacey guitar sounds pioneered by Hendrix and Sly & the Family Stone. In addition to a headier sound, the lyricism of their songs had moved towards a more social conscious mindset, best exemplified in their 1970 single “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World is Today).”
Written by the legendary team of Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, “Ball of Confusion” is one of the most meticulously constructed records I’ve ever heard. The thumping bass and swirling guitar line that spirals out of it in the beginning of the song feel like a breaking news story: urgent, out of nowhere and demanding of your attention. Your gripped from the first few seconds of the song, and you know you’re in for a dark ride.
It begins with an observation on racial inequality in housing and the general permeation of racism in facets of everyday life:
People movin’ out
People movin’ in
Why, because of the color of their skin
Run, run, run, but you sho’ can’t hide
Right away, it’s very easy to draw parallels between 1970 and 2018; just last week, Trump’s own HUD dept. (led ironically by an African American) voted to kill the significant Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, not to mention the lawsuits filed against him and his father in the late 1970s’ for discriminatory practices.
One of the most striking aspects of the lyrics is that “Ball of Confusion” is a largely apolitical song; it does not take a liberal or conservative stance, in fact it speaks to indecision or disillusionment with both sides insofar as who truly has their best interest in mind:
An eye for an eye
A tooth for a tooth
Vote for me, and I’ll set you free*
The concept of populism in politics – appealing to a specific demographic with outlandish, often unattainable or unfulfilled promises – obviously rings true with Trump, but if you are operating from a more conservative mindset, you might apply the same criticism to someone like Barack Obama or even Bernie Sanders.
A creeping dread sets into the music as we build towards the chorus, frustration growing at the rampant inaction beyond those who are obligated to act:
Well, the only person talkin’
‘Bout love thy brother is the preacher
And it seems,
Nobody is interested in learnin’
But the teacher*
The song’s rapid fire crescendo by Dennis Edwards is a white knuckle, teeth grinding affair, his voice filled with the tension as he lists a myriad of various social ills:
Segregation, determination, demonstration,
Humiliation, obligation to our nation*
The instrumental explosion that hits the chorus feels like a release, like being let off a roller coaster.
While almost all of “Ball of Confusion” feels eerily relevant today, the song’s second verse is the where most striking comparisons can be drawn:
The sale of pills are at an all time high
Young folks walkin’ around with
Their heads in the sky
Cities aflame in the summer time
And, the beat goes on*
Air pollution, revolution, gun control,
Sound of soul
Shootin’ rockets to the moon
Kids growin’ up too soon
Politicians say more taxes will
With the epidemic of illegal prescription drug abuse, the riots in Ferguson and Baltimore, global warming and the controversy over the recent tax reform bill, this passage bowled me over in how frighteningly prescient it is. We’ve seemed to have learned nothing in 50 years. Our collective indifference is summed up at the end by these four words:
And the band played on.
Eagle eared listeners may recognize this as the title of a famous play about the inaction towards the AIDS crisis.
There’s still a lot to unpack in the song’s final verse:
Fear in the air, tension everywhere
Unemployment rising fast,
The Beatles’ new record’s a gas
And the only safe place to live is
On an indian reservation*
In the wake of the Dakota Pipeline controversy at Standing Rock, I derived a great deal of irony from the ‘indian reservation’ line, as even those are no longer a safe haven today.
Eve of destruction, tax deduction
City inspectors, bill collectors
Mod clothes in demand,
Population out of hand
Suicide, too many bills, hippies movin’
To the hills
People all over the world, are shoutin’
End the war*
The mentioning of the Beatles and fashion trends represent the skewed priorities and distractions we build for ourselves. Replace them with Lady Gaga and Twitter and you basically have today’s mirror image.
The mention of suicide was one I had often glossed over until last week, with the deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. We tend to think of suicide as such a personalized issue, that the reasons leading to it are insular to the person’s personal experiences, without considering the overall impact of the overall social climate at large.
Amazingly, “Ball of Confusion” ends on a relatively quiet note, circling back to the opening bass / guitar tandem that opens the song. It’s almost like a resignation; there’s no solution to this madness.
Though there are many great protest songs from this era that still resonate today, few feel as ominous as “Ball of Confusion.” More than any song I’ve written about thus far, I feel a sense of exhaustion when I break down how well it aged, for all the wrong reasons.
*All credit goes to Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, Copyright © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, BMG Rights Management US, LLC