A long ride on
Merrell Fankhauser's nameBy Greg Ambrose
may not be familiar, but surely
you've heard of his song
Special to the Star-Bulletin
NO one is more stoked to be riding the current worldwide wave of enthusiasm for surf music than Merrell Fankhauser.
Surely you haven't heard of him, because this prolific musician is a certified unknown legend of rock 'n' roll. But every day that someone else in a distant corner of the world drops in on the joyful soundwaves of surf music, Fankhauser edges a little farther from the shadows of anonymity and closer to the spotlight.
It helps tremendously that he hosted "California Music" a show that broadcast surf music from more than 100 stations into 15 million households in the early to mid-1990s.
On his current radio program "Surf Music News," Fankhauser sneaks surf music onto talk radio shows on 40 stations across the nation.
Ironically, his surf show is heard on only one radio station in the island chain that gifted surfing to the rest of the world.
Big Islanders can tune in to KPUA-AM 670 to hear Fankhauser on "Let's Talk Surfing," at 8:05 Saturday mornings.
Fankhauser penned and performed the original surf instrumental "Wipe Out" with the band The Impacts in 1962. For nearly four decades, Fankhauser has cranked out 250 songs and 20 albums on nine European and several American labels. His work has won a fanatical following, even though commercial success eluded him.
Now, Fankhauser has returned to his roots, and the recognition and rewards are raining down as his music is becoming available with new technology and better distribution.
A compact disc recently released by a Swedish label provides an interesting glimpse of Fankhauser's musical muse. Recorded in 1975 and titled "Maui," the CD is an interesting mix of songs extolling the wonders of Maui, the romantic lyrics infused with mystical insights and extraterrestrial elements. The songs are a kind of laid back cosmic island folkie music, some of which would make a wonderful soundtrack for episodes of the "X-Files."
There is no telling what Europeans make of this island/cosmic synthesis, yet they are rabid Fankhauser fans. His "Doctor Fankhauser" album hit No. 1 on French music charts in 1987, and the Germans and the Swedes are greatly responsible for the resurrection of his early vinyls in CD format.
At first listening, John Denver on peyote comes to mind, though Fankhauser's music is impossible to categorize, as it evolves too quickly to pin down. The musical changes followed Fankhauser's movements from the Central California coast to Mojave Desert to Maui rainforest to Hollywood and back to the source, Pismo Beach in California.
His band's names changed from The Impacts, Merrell & the Exiles, The Revels, Fapardokly, H.M.S Bounty, Mu and back to The Impacts, and the music has followed a similar evolution, from surf stomp to folk-rock to psychedelia to mystical/progressive to blues/rock and back to new wave surf.
A highlight of Fankhausers journey was spending nearly 15 years living beside a waterfall off the Hana Highway, meditating, eating vegetarian, and grooving on the lush island landscape while dreaming of world peace and harmony.
His perpetual quest has been the search for the lost Pacific continent of Mu, for which he named his band, and which is the subject of a CD/video project produced by Bill McEuen of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
And now Fankhauser, cult hero and anointed Buddhist monk, has come full circle. He lives near Pismo Beach and plays revitalized surf music with his son Tim in the band Merrell Fankhauser and The Impacts, with ripping guitar leads and wailing saxes swirling above a thumping rhythm section.
Fankhauser was planning to make a triumphant musical return to Hawaii this summer, but ironically, his recent popularity has him stuck on the West Coast. "We are booked for performances everywhere this summer," he laments.
Although the European fans and recording companies have kept all the mutations of his music alive, Fankhausers big break came with the widespread appeal of the movie "Pulp Fiction" with its surf music-laden soundtrack.
"My band The Revels had a song called 'Comanche' in 'Pulp Fiction.' When that happened, all these labels with surf tunes by The Impacts started reissuing the albums," Fankhauser says.
At about the same time, he had a radio segment called "Surf Music News" on San Luis Obispo station KVEC, where he interviewed surf guitarist Dick Dale, Mike Love of the Beach Boys and other surfing icons. It became so popular, he syndicated it and sent "Surf Music News" to stations in New Jersey, Florida, Wisconsin, Ohio, Texas, anywhere bands were playing surf music.
San Luis Obispo disc jockey and avid surfer Marc Kent had his own show called "Let's Talk Surfing" and used it as a venue to interview such Hawaiian surf stars as Gerry Lopez, Ken Bradshaw and Brock Little. With the success of Fankhauser's "Surf Music News," Kent decided to carry the segment on his own show, providing an avenue for an additional 10 stations to broadcast Fankhauser's seditious surf tunes on talk radio stations.
"So many new young bands have embraced this kind of music that it is all over," Fankhauser says. "There is even a band from Croatia doing instrumental surf music. And the Space Cossacks from Russia are playing surf music with really wild reverbs and mysterious, dark Russian moods.
"There are fanzines for surf music all over, Japan, Switzerland, France, Spain, asking for information about Hawaiian surf music."
While Fankhauser is bemused by the surf revival, the reason it is being so fervently embraced is no mystery to him. "People have gotten so tired of rap and heavy metal. The taste is going back to melodic songs."
And surf music has that melody, some of that fire that hard rock has, but it wasn't distorted sounding guitars, it was clean sounding guitars with reverb that emulated the ocean. That was the whole idea of reverbing the lead guitars, imitating the power and sound of the waves breaking.
"The music is clean music, with no negative lyrics, and because it's instrumental, it's reaching the whole world and breaks the barriers. It has universal appeal"
While walking through Tower Records at Kahala Mall during an island visit, Fankhauser spotted the surf compilation CD "Pulp Surfin'," which is now going triple platinum, setting off a transcendental moment worthy of a lyric in one of his songs.
"It was such a flash for me. If someone in 1962 had said, 'Decades from now your songs will be on little tiny discs,' I wouldn't have believed them."
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