The Islanders – “King of the Surf”

The Single File

The Islanders

“King of the Surf”

Islander – 1965

In the early morning hours of September 20, 1967, Hurricane Beulah — by far the strongest Atlantic storm of that year’s season — settled over South Padre Island, Texas. With sustained winds measuring up to 136 miles per hour, the popular resort town was battered beyond recognition, in a scene that some locals likened to a bombed-out war zone. Uprooted trees, downed power lines, collapsed bridges, and ruined buildings only accounted for a fraction of the devastation, as the storm also ravaged the region’s economy and ecosystem for years to come.

Beulah’s path of destruction was demoralizing to area residents, and quite symbolically, it hit South Padre on the second-to-last day of a long hot summer. Seemingly a million miles away from the “Summer of Love” that defined the San Francisco Bay area in the preceding months, the teenagers of the Texas Gulf Coast region were no less immune to the political turbulence and social upheaval that the Haight-Ashbury hippies had fought off with a cocktail of hallucinogens, acid rock, and “free love.”

In fact, an increasing number of South Texans were receiving their draft notices as the summer turned to fall. Among them were Kenneth Greer and Arlis “Creep” Gosser: teenagers from nearby San Benito, who had named their band in reference to the community where they cut their teeth playing impromptu dances at a public picnic area.

Like countless American garage rock bands of the mid-sixties, The Islanders began as an instrumental group, heavily inspired by the expressive guitar-based sound of The Ventures. However, upon learning that Gosser could sing, the group turned to covering the likes of The Beatles, The Kinks, and The Rolling Stones. In time, they became regular players on a small-but-vibrant scene of like-minded bands, but — unlike most of their contemporaries — The Islanders had the good fortune to find themselves in a recording studio: specifically, that of Dallas resident Phil York.

It’s definitely for the best that The Islanders didn’t use their time in York’s studio to cover their American or British idols. Rather, they took the opportunity to record a pair of original compositions: “King of the Surf” and “When I’m With You.” In both tracks, one can clearly detect the influence of The Ventures — particularly in the drippy reverb of Jack Morgan’s lead guitar work. In fact, both pieces reflect a downcast style that stands in stark contrast to the rougher-edged proto-punk that Texas garage bands tended to be known for.

And while “When I’m With You” is plenty evocative in its own right, it’s “King of the Surf” which leaves the strongest impression. The forlorn nature of the song is emphasized by its languid tempo, Morgan’s tremolo bar dives, and Gosser’s supremely bummed out lead vocals. However, the wordless backing vocals give the track an ethereal, almost haunting quality that is exceedingly rare for sixties-era garage rock.

And though it was recorded two years earlier, there is something about “King of the Surf” that makes it befitting for The Islanders and South Padre in September of 1967. Even more than its specific content, its lonesome and despondent tone feel apt for the ending of the summer, the ending of a youth yet untouched by the outside forces of the wider world, and a community coping with unimaginable destruction.

*Much of the information about The Islanders in this piece came from the excellent resource on Texas garage bands, On the Road South.*


  • Matt Ryan

    Matt Ryan founded Strange Currencies Music in January 2020, and remains the site's editor-in-chief. The creator of the "A Century of Song" project and co-host of the "Strange Currencies Podcast," Matt enjoys a wide variety of genres, but has a particular affinity for 60s pop, 90s indie rock, and post-bop jazz. He is an avid collector of vinyl, and a multi-instrumentalist who has played/recorded with several different bands and projects.

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