The History of Joe Satriani’s Breakthrough Moment, ‘Surfing With the Alien’
The future of guitar playing arrived in stores in October 1987, courtesy of Joe Satriani’s epochal second album, and de facto public coming out party, Surfing With the Alien.
Before the album’s release, the Long-Island-bred, San Francisco-dwelling Satriani (Satch, to his friends) was a relative unknown to the average music fan, but a highly respected guitar teacher behind the scenes, responsible for honing the skills of all-star pupils such as Metallica’s Kirk, Primus’ Larry LaLonde, Testament’s Alex Skolnick, Counting Crows’ David Bryson, Third Eye Blind’s Kevin Cadogan, jazz-guitar wunderkind Charlie Hunter, and eventual biggest champion, protégé and peer, Steve Vai.
Somewhere between devising lesson plans and undertaking brief stints with local groups (including a quick pass through Greg Khin’s band), a modest solo career was born, and after cutting his teeth on a 1984 demo EP and 1986’s formative full-length debut, Not of This Earth, the already 30-year-old Satriani was finally ready for his close-up.
This became Surfing With the Alien, which, on its way to achieving platinum U.S. sales transformed Satriani from best-kept secret to the acknowledged fastest draw in town – the six-string gunslinger any would-be guitar hero simply had to challenge to earn his own stripes, never mind what the album also did to put instrumental music back on the rock 'n' roll map.
In a conspicuously Italian-American partnership involving producer John Cuniberti and drummer Jeff Campitelli, Surfing witnessed Satch striking upon a “golden songwriting ratio” of sorts, which entailed the creation of mesmerizing musical beds – rhythms, chord sequences, etc. – over which Joe could then vamp all over the fretboard, completely untethered by more conventional commercial restrictions.
The final pinch of pixie dust genius was of course slapping the Silver Surfer on the album cover. Trust us, Satch had no intention of winding up bald as a cue ball (and the Surfer) way back in 1987. But in an era when his modest amount of charisma was clearly no match for over-the-top showmen like David Lee Roth, and Axl Rose, presenting his otherworldly musical vision in the guise of Marvel Comics’ most enigmatic and philosophical hero was a stroke of genius. The ploy, if one could even call it that, quite literally established him as the ultimate super (guitar) hero.
And so it’s not surprising that, for many, Surfing With the Alien played like an animated movie of the mind’s eye, driven by Satriani's evocative soundtrack, and held in check only by each listener’s wildest imagination. Personally, my mental movie for side one, at least, played something like a day-in-the-life chronicle for a future deep space citizen. Along with the muddled conversations that introduced it, the opening title track's frantic pace and blindsiding solo runs suggested a busy rush hour space port; the comparatively sedate, almost thumb-twiddling tolerant "Ice 9" the ensuing daily commute; the alternately spirited and despairingly moody "Crushing Day" the highs and lows of 9-5 grind in between; the sublime "Always With Me, Always With You" a wistful daydream of life back on the protagonist’s home planet; and the jazz-cum-blues-on-steroids "Satch Boogie" that tall, stiff drink and short-tempered bar-brawling to cap another hard day.
Side two inspired less interconnected images, by comparison, but after seemingly paying circumspect lip service to his many metalhead students via the ominous "Hill of the Skull," Satch embarked on another batch of sensual and seductive mini-adventures taking in the exotic orbiting arpeggios of “Circles," the (probably faux-) sitar flourishes of "Lords of Karma," Spanish-flavored string tapping of "Midnight" and, finally, the atmospheric stratospheric extrapolations of "Echo." It feels like a trip for an album lasting under forty minutes and yet traveling thousands of light years.
And heck, even if the mental movie didn’t play for everyone, Surfing With the Alien still sounded of a piece as an album-length listening experience, and for all the guitarist’s subsequent triumphs working within and beyond its template, Surfing remains the fundamental measuring stick by which all instrumental rock guitar records are still considered all these years on – and may continue to do so for decades to follow. At the end of the day, Satch is still teaching, it would seem, only on a much grander scale.
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