Howzat?

A few years ago I was traveling in North Dakota and listening to an oldies station from Winnipeg, Manitoba. In keeping with rules requiring Canadian stations to play a certain amount of Canadian content, this station played Canadian oldies—songs that had been big up there, often without breaking through down here. It was a Twilight Zone version of the 60s and 70s—much of the familiar American pop of the period but with a number of new-to-me songs that fit seamlessly alongside them. In the years since, I’ve been interested in hits from elsewhere in the English-speaking world that failed to make it in America, and how they would have fit in if they’d made it here.

In the alternate universe known as Australia, the biggest group of the 1970s was Sherbet. Starting in 1971, Sherbet singles were rarely off the radio, and between 1973 and 1978, they made the Australian Top 10 11 times, including two #1s and a #2. They had formed in 1969, and according to Allmusic.com, they were a product of unique circumstances. Australian bands of the late 60s and early 70s were “almost totally geared towards satisfying the money-rich comfort-starved American Vietnam troops who came [to Oz] for official Rest And Recreation.” So Sherbet started as a soul music cover band—although they didn’t stay that way for long. Their photogenic looks and a switch to teen-oriented pop made them into superstars.

In 1975, “Summer Love” went to #1, and given the popularity of glam rock in the British Empire at that moment, it’s easy to understand. But their biggest hit was yet to come. In the summer of 1976, “Howzat” spent four weeks at #1 after knocking ABBA’s “Fernando” from #1, a spot it had held for 14 weeks (the longest run in the history of the Australian charts, I think). It was a top-five hit in the UK, and unlike any other Sherbet single, it also charted in the States, reaching #61 in an eight-week run that fall.

Sherbet’s next attempt to conquer America was strange. The group’s 1978 album was released in the States under the group name Highway. It stiffed. A release in Australia under the name Highway stiffed. At that point, the band decided they’d had enough, so they split, temporarily. When they reformed in 1980, with precisely the same lineup, it was under the name the Sherbs. Their new-wave-styled album The Skill got some airplay in the States and produced the Hot 100 single “I Have the Skill” (which I remember playing on the radio in college). The album failed to produce a hit in their native land, however. After another album and an EP failed to gain much traction anywhere, the band announced it was splitting up for good. Their Australian farewell tour was conducted under the name Sherbet. There were some reunions starting in the late 80s. A couple of the members have died within the last year, including Clive Shakespeare, guitarist and principal songwriter through 1976, earlier this month, and the guitarist who replaced him, Harvey James, in 2011.

Sherbet’s American label, RSO, believed that “Sherbet” was too lightweight a name, and encouraged the change to Highway—which makes me wonder if label executives ever listened to the group’s music. Sherbet seems exactly right for the sort of highly produced pop-rock that made them famous down under during the 70s. “Howzat” is pretty clearly the best of their singles, although “Silvery Moon” (#5, 1974) is pretty good, too. “Only One You” (#5, 1975) is a terrific love ballad, and its B-side, “Matter of Time” was also a hit.

I think we’ll spend some more time in the coming weeks fooling around with the Australian charts. There’s some interesting stuff to talk about down there.

6 responses

  1. I always enjoyed “Howzat” on the one local station brave enough to play it in heavy rotation at the time. Still have the later Sherbs Atco 45s, but haven’t thought to listen to them since the day they arrived.

    In researching one of the 45s from my college radio years, I was surprised to discover that “Old Enough (To Break My Heart)” by Flying Circus had not only achieved all four slices of the Cancon MAPL pie, but that the act itself had relocated from Oz. Being on Capitol, I’m still not altogether convinced “Old Enough” wasn’t a clandestine Raspberries waxing. Too bad it wasn’t quite big enough in Canuckistan to warrant oldies play today.

  2. I hope this exploration of Oz touches on Skyhooks at some point. I first heard them while doing a semester in Australia and have always liked them. Riffy, snarky and totally Australian glam-pop.

  3. The Sherbs had a song called “We Ride Tonight” that I heard a lot on AOR stations in ’82/’83. I never knew who it was or what it was called until stumbling upon it on the internets in the past year.

  4. The one “skill” they didn’t have was fashion sense; ugh, tee-shirts and overalls?

    I’ve always wondered why songs can go to #1 somewhere in the world and not do jack in the US. Isn’t a good song a good song?

    1. Porky, I think the answer to your question is I’ve always believed American radio is more ratings driven than radio in other countries. Constant research and focus groups dictate what gets played so there is not as much chance for something unknown to break through. It happens on occasion, but not often. We can’t purchase what we never hear.

  5. In St. Louis, Doubleday’s AOR KWK played “No Turning Back” from “The Skill” in heavy rotation in the late spring and early summer of 1981. They also played “We Ride Tonight” a year later. Doubleday kept similar playlists throughout the stations they owned, so it’s likely that these songs were played on WLLZ Detroit, WAVA Washington, WAPP New York, and KDWB Minneapolis. Now, “No Turning Back” is considered a “K-SHE Klassic” although KSHE didn’t play the song in its heyday. It’s a catch-all term used for AOR tracks (usually one-hit-wonders) that became local favorites in St. Louis.

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