This April marked 30-years since the Bee Gees released one of the more ambitious, underrated albums of their massive back catalogue. Fans are often split, though the more years that go by, the more I feel that history is kind to the industrialised, tech-heavy pop that was High Civilization. And the more that it’s worthy of being rediscovered.
The year was 1991 and theoretically, this should’ve been the album to fully reassert the brothers Gibb onto the upper reaches of the US charts. The only problem was the record company went AWOL in the States and off the back of precisely zero promotion, High Civilization became the first (and ultimately only) Bee Gees studio release to completely fail to chart in the world’s most important market.
And yet despite that, High Civilization was far from an international flop. Indeed, it’s one of the biggest albums the Gibbs ever released in Europe. But irrespective of commercial success (or lack thereof), how does this most enigmatic of Bee Gees studio albums stack up in 2021? For that, we still need to first gain a bit of background.
Some strange things happened to the Bee Gees after their big comeback in 1987. After years as behind the scenes hitmakers and producers following the band’s record-breaking late 70’s commercial peak and subsequent over-saturation-induced backlash, the brothers reformed in ’87 with mostly across the board results. “Mostly”, because while the single You Win Again scored virtually everywhere in the world – including topping the UK charts for a month – it stalled at US #75.
Its parent album ESP was also a UK smash, peaking at #5 on its way to global sales of three million. But in the States? US #96.
If you were an American radio programmer in 1987 and you refused to play You Win Again simply because it was by the Bee Gees, then you’re a dick. I have little time for people in the music industry who think image is more vital than output. But two years later it was an oddly different story. For a start, there was the single One hitting the US top 10 but for some reason missing the UK top 40.
What?? While a terrific song, I don’t know anyone who thinks One is superior to You Win Again, so why did One hit in the US and sink in the UK, but the complete reverse only two years earlier with You Win Again?
Perhaps it’s in part because by 1988/1989, other acts who’d been huge in the 70s, namely the Doobie Brothers, Aretha Franklin and Donna Summer, also unexpectedly found themselves back in the US top 10. There was a new demand for heritage acts on American radio, if only as a kind of novelty. The motives may’ve been patronising, but the songs were deserved hits.
But as far as the US was concerned, when the 80s melted into the 90s, this flirtation with established acts was short-lived. Not so in the UK though where this time the Gibbs’ mother country was back on board. In 1991, Secret Love returned the Gibbs to the UK top 5 and as high as #2 in Germany, but it wasn’t even released as a single in the States. Who was making these decisions? As a result, High Civilization sank Stateside, but sold well in the UK and in the case of mainland Europe, in the millions.
It’s fair to say High Civilization divides Bee Gees buffs. It lacks the underdog status that pulls fans in to embracing LPs like Mr Natural (1974) and Living Eyes (1981), while the accessible, Supremes-recalling pop of Secret Love was not an overly accurate gauge of an album full of long intros and outros, and a prominent, electronic percussive sound (Prince’s engineer Femi Jiya oversaw the album).
But give High Civilization a chance because the song-craft is there, lengthy intros and outros or not. The title track – a rare social commentary by the brothers with an intriguing off-the-beat chorus – was Barry’s choice of single, though clearly not the record company’s. A shame because it’s not inconceivable that this could have caught on as a followup to Secret Love, but instead the less immediate (but still appealing) When He’s Gone was chosen as the US single.
Again, with essentially no US record company interest, both the album and song disappeared, which given the sizeable success of the One album, single and world tour just two years earlier, is baffling. And yet the European market was booming again to such an extent that the Bee Gees’ 1991 European tour saw them play to some of the biggest audiences of their career (including 57,000 fans at Berlin’s Waldbuhne ampitheatre).
The first half of High Civilization in particular is excellent with some of the best lead vocal interplay between Barry and Robin of any Bee Gees album. From the dark industrial pop of the title track to the Motown bounce of Secret Love to the sublime adult/contemporary balladry of Happy Ever After (the best Bee Gees ballad between 1979’s Spirits Having Flown and 1993’s For Whom The Bell Tolls), this is clearly no hastily thrown together project, even if the album has a slightly same-y home stretch*.
The two stabs at electro-funk – Party With No Name and Maurice’s Dimensions – succeed, while it’s Ghost Train that is High Civilization’s real dark horse. Sure, Secret Love and Happy Ever After may be the album’s two finest songs, and yes, The Only Love may be the big old-fashioned Gibb ballad, and also yes, the title track could’ve been one of the more brave late period Bee Gees singles. But it’s still arguably Ghost Train that’s the real discovery.
There’s the nervous energy of the intro, the fast phrasing of Barry’s pre-chorus, the woah-ohs of the first part of chorus, Robin in his upper-register for the middle chorus and the harmonies of all three brothers for the “ghost train” refrain. The song structure is complicated and this is before we even get to the outro, complete with sound effects of a children’s playground, a cool military drum loop and then an abrupt end with a lit match and Barry defiantly saying, “right!”
Ghost Train in many ways sums up High Civilization beyond its big hit single: on the one hand it’s long, there’s a truckload going on special effects-wise, it takes a few listens and there’s a clear attempt to sound modern that manifests in high-in-the-mix drum programming. But get beyond that and the hefty hooks are still there, as are the peerless harmonies.
If you listened to High Civilization once in 1991 and relegated it to the back of your Bee Gees collection, it’s time to give it a whirl again. 30-years on, I find it rewards more than ever.
*That “home stretch” is the final trio Human Sacrifice, True Confessions and Evolution. High Civilization is probably a stronger album if the randy but beige Evolution had been omitted and even so, there still would’ve been a running time of close to an hour.
That said, there’s much to enjoy about these closing tracks, including the tumbling chorus in True Confessions of “Whose word you gonna’ take / whose heart you gonna’ break / not mine”. And let’s not overlook the fact that not only does Human Sacrifice have a badass drum pattern that’s crying out for a modern day hip-hop sample, it also has the album’s most unforgettable lyric: “…get a little of your womanifestation”.
I’ve Googled “womanifestation” and the jury’s out if it’s a real word. Though if Chuck Berry could go “motorvatin'” over a hill, the Gibbs should most certainly be permitted to explore the mysteries of “womanifestation”.