Clould Nine stands as a landmark 45 for not only The Temptations but also for Motown, it was a significant departure from the usual Motown sound. Sly and The Family Stone and James Brown had given soul music a dramatic makeover, it now had a tougher R&B edge, it was more syncopated with a greater emphasis on rhythm, it was more sparse and stripped back, there were additions such as strings. It was a sound that Motown was wary of, it's formula had been gold for over four years and Berry Gordy was not prone to taking musical risks.
The Temptations had been going through a turbulent period, lead singer David Ruffin had been sacked from the group due to missing several performances and recording sessions due to a growing cocaine addiction. He was replaced by former Monitors lead singer Dennis Edwards, some members of the group were keen to explore new musical territory initially producer Norman Whitfield was less than enthusiastic but soon found something in the new sound that he could work with. It was also an opportunity for him and his songwriting partner Barrett Strong to explore more controversial subject matter, and write about songs with a political and social focus. America was fragmenting, trapped in a war with little sign of an end, growing poverty in inner city ghettos and a rise in crime and drugs were all a cause for frustration and fuel for a creative response.
It's start is unfamiliar for a Motown record, a droning wah wah guitar courtesy of the legendary Dennis Coffey, lean sparse rhythm with an emphasis on percussion. It's a depressing story of being born into poverty in the slums of the inner city,
The childhood part of my life wasn't very pretty see,
I was born and raised in the slums of the city,
It was a one room shack that slept ten other children beside me,
We hardy had enough food or room to sleep
It was hard times, I need something to ease my troubled mind.
Even though it was always denied from Norman Whitfield and the group the song to me is a commentary on the growing spread of drugs especially in the poorer communities of America during the late 1960's. There was a growing sense of alienation in America, a serious divide between rich and poor and for many drugs were an easy escape, as the song emphasises,
Let me tell bout Cloud Nine
You can be what you want to be
You ain't got no responsibility
And every man, every man is free
And you're a million miles from reality.
Motown artists and writers were to become adept at writing social commentary The Temptations followed Cloud Nine with songs like Ball of Confusion and Running Child, Running Wild, Edwin Starr released the classic War, The Supremes recorded and released Love Child in the same year as Cloud Nine. Norman Whitfield's work was probably a catalyst among other for Marvin Gaye to write the What's Going On album. Cloud Nine also has a nice blend of voices, Dennis Edwards has that similar raw gospel voice that David Ruffin possessed, Paul Williams for me was often overlooked as a singer, you only have to listen to Don't Look Back to see what a strong voice he had, Eddie Kendricks with his inimitable falsetto gave the group a unique dynamic.