25 Years Ago: Joe Satriani Pushes the Boundaries of Expectations With ‘Flying in a Blue Dream’
"Every record is a complete long shot. You just have to throw caution to the wind and try everything and then see what happens."
Following the surprise Top 40 success of his second album, 1987's 'Surfing With the Alien,' Joe Satriani found himself near the top of a very short list of musicians who'd managed to find a mainstream audience with an instrumental rock record. For the follow-up, the safe thing would have been to come back with an 'Alien' sequel, but Satriani was far more interested in seeing just how far he could push the boundaries of his newfound audience's expectations -- and he proved it on Oct. 30, 1989, with a sprawling 18-track set titled 'Flying in a Blue Dream.'
"I thought 'I can't believe they let me release two albums already and they're going to let me release another one, so this time I'm just going to go crazy and put as much on it as possible.' I think that was subconsciously running through my mind," Satriani tells Ultimate Classic Rock's Matt Wardlaw during an exclusive interview conducted around the 25th anniversary of the LP's release. "At that time I was thinking, 'Who has done this before me? Jeff Beck?' Players like Jeff, who rolled into instrumental careers, but even they wouldn't try something so ambitious."
Part of that ambition stemmed from the album's sheer length, which clocked in at nearly 65 minutes -- something Satriani admits he was acutely aware of as he tried to put together a running order. "I couldn't figure out what to take off, because they seemed to depend on each other," he explains. "A song like 'Strange' wouldn't really work if the album was six vocal tracks and four instrumental tracks. That didn't work. When I started to change the balance between the vocal tracks and the instrumental tracks, I would always go back to the full 18 pieces, because the instrumental tracks were so 'instrumental' and not commercial sounding, that they sort of gave artistic license for the vocal excursions."
Those vocal excursions were one of a handful of surprises for fans who expected nothing more than further guitar heroics from Satriani, but they led to some of the most affecting moments on 'Flying in a Blue Dream,' including the hit rock single 'I Believe.' "I knew I wasn't a singer," he points out. "I was a 'vocalizer' -- I think that's what I told myself. I was able to vocalize, but I wasn't actually a singer."
Those who enjoyed Satriani's vocal tracks on 'Blue Dream' may think he's being a little uncharitable with that statement, but as he discovered on the tour behind the album, singing in the studio and pulling it off in a live environment are very different propositions. "I am able to sing, but I am not a lead singer. There's no greater example than being in a band with Sammy Hagar. Sammy Hagar is such a lead singer it's ridiculous," continues Satriani. "Not only does he have a huge voice, it can just take over a recording, it's so big. But the guy's got the cojones to be a lead vocalist, and so he creates magic that supersedes the melody and the lyrics he's doing. That's what lead vocalists are. I don't care if you're Bob Dylan, or Robert Plant or Sammy Hagar. It takes a special magic to it."
Describing singing live as a "painful" experience that added a "nerve-wracking" element to the tour, Satriani shared one particularly bad night that occurred thanks to the producers of 'MTV Unplugged.'
"I was blackmailed by MTV, who kept saying they weren't going to play my video unless I came on this show called 'Unplugged' and played with Stevie Ray Vaughan," he recalls. "I said, 'I love Stevie, and I'll do it only because I can play with Stevie.' I warned them, 'Hey, I'm not a real singer. I'm a studio guy.' Of course when I got there, they said, 'You're not playing with Stevie Ray Vaughan.' I showed up with actual acoustic instruments and they weren't prepared for that. They were using electrified acoustic instruments. Then I had to be filmed for a TV show doing what I do not too well. Without my electric guitar. And they didn't play our video anyway. I mean, they totally screwed me over, and all I have to show for it is a very nervous performance. But I think that experience probably scarred me for life and any time someone says, 'Hey, why don't you sing?' I go, 'Oh no, thanks but no thanks.'"
The burst of ambition that put Satriani behind the mic for a handful of 'Flying in a Blue Dream' tracks also influenced the music on the rest of the record -- a songwriting evolution that had some of its roots in the time he spent on the road with Mick Jagger during Jagger's 1988 tour. "The first thing I realized was physically how demanding it was to play the material, two sets a night of all that material, back to back. Especially if you're in a trio. It was just me, Stu Hamm and Jonathan Mover," he explains. "We had to sort of 'liven' up a lot of the tracks that were very studio-like, very album-like, from the first two records. And of all this experience I brought to the studio, number one, I thought, 'I don't want to repeat myself, but I want to take the drama that was in the first two records and figure out a way to make it even more dramatic.'"
The Jagger tour also took Satriani around the world as part of what he called a "red carpet" experience while opening his eyes to some surprising realities, all of which couldn't help but inform his new material. "I'm there in my wonderful hotel room, reflecting on this fantastic bit of fortune that's come my way," he says of one particular night in Australia. "And on the television, they were showing this program, I think it was called 'World Vision Hour,' and it was on every time I went back to my hotel room after some ridiculous party with models and famous people and actors and whatever, and there would be this program focusing on how many millions of people were starving to death every day. And that's where I started to write a song about that, and the two sides of it."
The song that came out of that experience, a two-part number titled 'The Forgotten,' tried to put what Satriani describes as "the complicated nature of survival on the planet" to music -- an ambitious undertaking that found him taking a variety of tactics. "I decided to delve into the two-handed, arpeggiated, odd-time signature way of representing the complicated nature of life. And the second part was really about the way we relate to it as humans. The way that the heart looks at things is a very different way than the mind looks at things."
That head/heart divide was also reflected in the pressures imposed by Satriani's label at the time, Relativity, where people were understandably excited about trying to build on the success of 'Surfing With the Alien' and anxious about deviating from the formula. "The business people were saying to me, 'Hey, you've got a captive audience now. Now it's time to be just like everybody else and take advantage of your good fortune.,'" he admits. "I went the other way and said, 'No, I think I want to be stranger.' My experience on stage, looking at my fans, was a very different experience from what I was getting from radio stations."
Once again, the heavy touring that preceded 'Flying in a Blue Dream' paid off. "I knew the radio stations really loved 'Satch Boogie' and 'Surfing,'" he points out. "But I played those things in front of people for a year. They were amazing and I loved those songs and they were a lot of fun, but you can't have any more of them in your set. You can really only have one 'Satch Boogie' to play, because if you had six of them, what, are you going to play all of them in in front of the same audience in one night?"
Ultimately, he found himself moving forward partly by looking back: "I started to think, this is exactly what I had learned being a fan of other bands. Look at Led Zeppelin or the Beatles or the Rolling Stones -- they keep changing. Every record is a new phase, and when they go out on tour they have a lot of interesting stuff to play for you because they made the bold step of not repeating themselves. That was the main thing I brought into those sessions, was trying not to repeat myself."
That may have been the main thing, but it wasn't the only thing; unfortunately for Satriani, he also brought a persistent case of the intestinal bacteria giardia, which added even more tension to the sessions. "Every month and a half I wound up going to the emergency room because I thought I was giving birth to an alien out of my gut or something. And they kept wanting to operate and take stuff out, and I was always like a minute away from being wheeled into the operating room. But it wasn't until the album was finished and I was rehearsing with the guys for the tour, that I was finally given the correct diagnosis," he tells UCR. "I took some antibiotics and I was cured. But that year was so hard, I had lost so much weight and my insides were just always in agony."
And it wasn't just medical drama that plagued Satriani at the time -- he was also dealing with his father's health, which deteriorated rapidly during work on 'Flying in a Blue Dream.' "It was a rough year physically to try and come across with that record," he admits. "That all went into the passion of standing my ground on making this record. If you can imagine, after six months, the label was like, 'Where is this album? why is it not done? why are you singing on six songs? how come that song is a ballad and that one sounds like Prince?' So on and so forth. Ultimately I had no excuse, but on the other hand, I had plenty of excuses."
No one was looking for excuses after 'Flying in a Blue Dream' arrived in stores and, like its predecessor, sailed into the Top 40 -- as did four singles ('Big Bad Moon,' 'One Big Rush,' 'Back to Shalla-Bal' and 'I Believe') on Billboard's Mainstream Rock chart. In 1991, Satriani found himself among that year's nominees for the Best Rock Instrumental Performance, and although he came away empty-handed, it was clear he'd begun staking out a long-term career -- that by refusing to repeat himself, he'd gambled and won.
"I had very little credibility back then, you can imagine," he says. "During the 'Flying' sessions actually we hired a couple of people to come in and try and play bass and drums at different times ... they just thought they could do anything and I'd say, 'You can't do anything, you have to do exactly this.' They didn't get it because they'd look at me and they'd say 'Who the f--- are you? What's a guitar instrumental anyway? Nobody cares about that.' That's kind of like why [producer/engineer/percussionist] John Cuniberti and I felt this antagonism from the outside world. But each time the next record was successful, we felt vindicated."
Of course, that vindication didn't come without a price. "It was an emotionally difficult time," Satriani offers in conclusion. "My father did eventually pass away just as we were finishing up the mixing of the album. Then when the album gets released, at the record release party in New York City -- a few days before that, the 1989 earthquake happened here in San Francisco, and I lost contact with my wife for about four days. That was just insane. Boy, when the year was over I was like, 'Oh my god, '89, what a crazy year.' Then we started a new decade. Luckily, when people hear the record they can think their own thoughts and feelings. They don't have to think about all the stuff I went through."