Tiki-lounging with Merrell Fankhauser

Merrell Fankhauser‘s name is not as well-known as some others from the rock era, but he’s been an important force in the development of both surf and psychedelia. Outside of record-collecting circles, Fankhauser’s name is recognized thanks to an excellent profile/interview in Richie Unterberger‘s 1998 book Unknown Legends of Rock’n’Roll. But thanks to a clutch of reissues and compilations, Fankhauser’s output is now readily available for modern-day audiences. In 2012, a two-volume set of episodes of his public-access-channel TV show Tiki Lounge was released on DVD, and concurrent with that release, a 2CD set entitled The Best of Merrell Fankhauser came out. That set surveys all of his work from 1963 to the present.

Fankhauser’s groups (The Exiles, Fapardokly, HMS Bounty and MU) and his solo career all showcased music that exemplified the particular styles they aimed for. It’s remarkable how often – and well – his music seems to capture the zeitgeist of the era in which it was recorded. The Exiles-to-Fapardokly era music centered around the Antelope Valley region, now known as the home of early music from Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart. One of Merrell’s earliest musical cohorts was, he says, a “then-fourteen-year-old guitar player Jeff Cotton, who later became Antennae Jimmy Semens in Beefheart’s band, and later joined me again in MU.”

Fapardokly’s “Super Market” (a highlight of the bonus various-artists CD packaged with Unterberger’s first book) is easily in the same league as Love‘s similarly-flavored “Alone Again Or,” a light classic from the so-called Summer of Love. (“I never heard that [comparison],” claims Fankhauser.) Yet none of Fankhauser’s music really shifted big units, never caught on in a major commercial way, despite its quality and accessibility. The Exiles singles – released on the tiny Glen records – sold a bit, as the label put them out. In 1967, Glen collected an album’s worth of what Merrell calls “random songs from 1964 to 1967” and released them using the group’s then-current “psychedelic” name, Fapardokly. But Glen’s limited distribution kept the record from getting notice beyond the region.

Merrell tells the story of first learning the commercial value of that Fapardokly LP: It was “oh, ’78 or so when two Germans looked me up when I was living on Maui. They told me [affects a German accent], ‘Oh ya. We bought der open copy of der Fapardokly album at a record fair in Berlin for only $650!’ I said, ‘Say that again?’ That was total news to me.” Shortly thereafter, Fankhauser flew back to California and “tore apart my mom’s closet. Because I knew she had about six of ’em.” He went on to sell one to a collector in Norway for nearly twice what the Germans had paid. “Oh, you don’t have to give me that much,” he told the collector. But the Norwegian insisted. Merrell sold all but one of those copies, and the remaining copy – still sealed – is framed and on his home studio’s wall. He believes that only 1200 copies of the original were ever pressed. Of those, about a hundred went to radio stations, and about 300 sold retail. Merrell remains “flabbergasted” at the enduring (if specialist) appeal that his music from that era has with fans around the world. Thomas Pynchon‘s 2009 novel Inherent Vice even makes mention of “Super Market.”

As an aside – and going backward briefly in our chronology – Merrell claims that his earliest surf-styled Exiles recordings for the Del-Fi label – including a track called “Wipe Out,” which he insists formed the basis for the Surfaris hit of the same name – sold “a million copies” but he’s never seen any appreciable income from those sides.

HMS Bounty’s “Things” did crack the Billboard Hot 100 around 1968. “We watched our songs going up the charts, and thought, ‘This is great.’ The album was selling, so we moved down to L.A., where we did big concerts opening for CTA [later Chicago], Canned Heat and The Electric Flag.” But then HMS Bounty’s label, Uni, put its promotional efforts elsewhere: “They signed Neil Diamond, who already had one little hit on the Bang label. As soon as they signed him,” Merrell recalls, “we watched the promotion pull away from us.” That spelled the end of that band. Merrell went on to do a few sessions backed by Jim Gordon, Al Casey, Carol Kaye, Larry Knechtel and other highly-regarded luminaries of the sixties music scene.

After his time with Uni was up, Fankhauser jammed with old friend Jeff Cotton (then still with Beefheart’s Magic Band), who took him aside one day and said, “I’d really like to get out of this crazy house and play with you instead.” So the pair – plus two former Exiles – formed MU.

As time went by, Fankhauser’s reputation grew in stature (if not size), and counted among his fans were some influential media types. Elliott Mintz and others suggested Merrell host his own television program. And Merrell had an untrained but natural affinity for the behind-the-scenes machinations of TV production: “I was always the guy in the studio who was asking the engineer about how he got this or that sound, and I felt the same way about TV.” He conducted some interviews with fellow musicians while he lived on Maui, and guested on some TV shows there. By 1990 these efforts led Fankhauser – by then back on the mainland – to create his own satellite TV show, California Music. After sponsorship was secured, Merrell started rounding up guests. “I put the word out to all my old friends. I got Dean Torrance and Mike Love and a whole bunch of other people. Everybody started coming out of the woodwork; even Sky Saxon!” He also got to interview (and play with, as documented on a Tiki Lounge DVD) legendary keyboardist-to-the-stars, Nicky Hopkins. In fact, Merrell’s later show Tiki Lounge often draws on vintage clips from the earlier program.

A seven-year musical project concerning what Merrell describes (with a straight face) as the Lost Continent of Mu kept him busy; the resulting record Return to MU has also recently been reissued. Gigging both in the USA and Hawaii with some heavy friends (including, oddly enough, a Stratocaster-slinging Willie Nelson!) Merrell eventually found himself “too busy for TV.” But fans within the business encouraged him to get back in the game, and so Tiki Lounge was born. “I’m up to almost ninety shows now,” says a justly-proud Fankhauser.

Having one of his songs (the 1967 Fapardokly track “Tomorrow’s Girl”) included on Rhino’s 2009 compilation Where the Action Is! L.A. Nuggets 1965-1968 certainly helped raise Fankhauser’s profile: “I think I made seven or eight record deals since that happened,” he says. “I was thinking, ‘Well, my recording career is kind of mellowing out now; maybe I’ll just fade into the sunset.’ But all of a sudden, this happens. And I’m very thankful.”

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