Cloud Nine may have been the first trip in the psychedelic soul era for The Temptations, but Puzzle People was the proof that it was here to stay. The incredible (and severely underrated) album was released 50 years ago this week, the same week that The Beatles released Abbey Road. It was a sign that The Temptations had left the traditional Motown sound behind, and that the Dennis Edwards era was going to be something different entirely.
1969 was a busy year for The Temptations. Earlier that year, the band released Cloud Nine, the album that would lead to both Motown and the band’s first Grammy Award. September 23 would see the release of two more LPs, Together, featuring duets with Diana Ross & The Supremes, and Puzzle People. The Temptations were coming out of the gate quickly into the Dennis Edwards era, determined to prove that David Ruffin alone did not make The Temptations great, and that no one man was bigger than the band.
The opening track of Puzzle People is the incredible “I Can’t Get Next to You”. Like “Cloud Nine”, the opener and title track of the previous album, it features the lead vocals of everyone in the band, and showcases the psychedelic soul sound at its absolute peak. The song clearly resonated with audiences, as it reached #1 on the Pop Charts for two weeks when it was released as a single in October, only being removed from the top spot by Elvis Presley’s final #1, “Suspicious Minds”. The song is among The Temptations absolute best, and almost certainly the best opener of any of their albums.
Cloud Nine was essentially two different, shorter albums sharing a record: the first half was psychedelic soul, and the b-side was more of the “traditional” Temptations sound. This isn’t the case on Puzzle People, which only breaks from the pure psychedelic soul sound briefly on songs like “Little Green Apples” and “Running Away (Ain’t Gonna Help You)”, two songs lead by the incredible Paul Williams. Williams had been overshadowed during the Ruffin era, but was finally able to show his talents again now that The Temptations were born anew.
Perhaps most notably, Puzzle People is The Temptations at their most political. Three especially notable examples are “Don’t Let The Joneses Get You Down”, “Message from a Black Man”, and “Slave”, all of which deal with political issues unlike The Temptations had done before. “Don’t Let The Joneses Get You Down” was the first single from the record, and did respectably on the charts, but is an under appreciated gem now. It’s a high energy, funky song with the important message of focusing on your own struggle and not letting your neighbor’s apparent successes hurt your own drive.
“Message From A Black Man” managed some success despite not being released as a single, as it was widely requested on radio. It is a slow burn of a black power song, calling into question why white people are seen as being in the right while people of color are being held back, a question that one still has to ask far too often in 2019. The song stops asking questions and finally declares “no matter how hard you try, you can’t stop me now” — a powerful refrain that makes the song feel like it could have been released today. Unfortunately, The Temptations themselves thought the song was too forward, and never played it live.
“Slave” was similarly powerful, a seething criticism of the prison system, obviously inspired by Sam Cooke’s classic “Chain Gang”, but with a much harder edge. The track passes the 7 minute mark, and closes the album with notable poignancy. Previous albums by The Temptations seemed to stack all of their best tracks on the first half, only to sort of limp to the finish line by the end, but “Slave” is perhaps second only to “I Can’t Get Next to You” on the albums track list. This is a notable for an album that I can’t find a single track to dislike; even their out of place cover of The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” has a strange charm to it that I can’t really describe.
It seems an impossible to task to get the music-listening masses to fully appreciate Puzzle People, or even the psychedelic soul era of The Temptations as a whole. It seems that history has decided to glorify and remember the so-called ‘Classic Five’ era only, but as someone who feels especially drawn to the social awareness and funkier edge of the Dennis Edwards era of The Temptations, Puzzle People will always hold a special place.