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Dick Wagner, founder of the Center for Wooden Boats, June 2011. Photo by Marcie Sillman.

Dick Wagner, founder of the Center for Wooden Boats, June 2011. Photo by Marcie Sillman.


Changing The Sound: The 1980s - Grunge, Coffee And Computers

Marcie Sillman

Twenty years ago, on September 24, 1991, the band Nirvana released what would become its hit album, "Nevermind." Nirvana was one of at least a half dozen bands that made national headlines in the 1980s and early 1990s. Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains — by 1991, Seattle had become a magnet for aspiring musicians and for their fans.

Some people trace Seattle's hipster status back to the 1962 World's Fair.

Today, in the second part of our series "Changing the Sound," we look at how arts and culture helped redefine Seattle.


I'm Marcie Sillman.

The early 1970s weren't pretty in Seattle. In 1971, Congress cancelled the Supersonic Transport program, the SST. That, plus a slump in commercial airplane sales, forced Boeing to layoff almost 50,000 people in less than two years. Boeing mechanic Gary Dawson says the company's Renton plant was almost a ghost town.

Dawson: "What was in there was equipment to be surplussed: desks, stacks and stacks and stacks and stacks. Anything Boeing was trying to offload and sell."

Blecha: "The other thing going on in the early 70s was an international phenomenon, which was the gas shortage."

Seattle–based music historian Peter Blecha was a teenager during the 1971 Boeing Bust. Blecha says it devastated the region's economy. But the Bust also pummeled our local psyche. What was the Jet City, after all, when jet production was almost at a standstill? Blecha remembers the malaise that gripped the city.

Blecha: "Nothing was happening, there was all this tinder here and it just needed a spark."

In the summer of 1971, to help buoy his citizens' spirits, former Mayor Wes Uhlman helped organize an arts festival.

Uhlman: "Seattle was really down at its heels. I felt very strongly we should be doing something to add some life and vitality, make us all feel better and maybe divert attention from some of the sad things that were going on economically."

Forty years later, we call Uhlman's arts festival Bumbershoot. It was Seattle's largest cultural undertaking since the 1962 World's Fair. Part of the fair's legacy were the buildings that once housed exhibitions. They were converted into theaters, an art museum and a concert hall. The World's Fair created a cultural framework that blossomed and held fast, even after Boeing went bust. The fair's most iconic legacy continues to draw tourists.

Space Needle tour guide: "The Space Needle was built in 1962 for the Century 21 Exposition World's Fair. It took place on the grounds below us here, the Seattle Center grounds. At the time of our construction, we were actually the tallest building west of the Mississippi River [...] "

Berger: "Standing on the Space Needle now, looking at downtown, you see this wall of skyscrapers. The first thing you have to imagine in 1962, there was nothing there."

That nothingness was a blank slate for some of Seattle's new elite. Writer Knute Berger says the sons, and daughters, of the men who made their fortunes from the region's natural resources dreamed of building a city to rival the likes of New York, or Paris or San Francisco.

Berger: "The old joke is, San Francisco is the mistress, Seattle is the wife. It partly had to do with, San Francisco is where you went to have fun, Seattle is where you raised your family."

After the fair, city leaders aspired to build a place that was just as much fun as San Francisco. A city that was more than a center for Boeing's airplane factories, or Weyerhauser's logging trucks. The late arts impresario Peter Donnelly arrived in Seattle in 1964. He found a frontier town in the process of reinventing itself.

Donnelly: "The town was ambitious after the World's Fair, it started to feel its own muscle. All of a sudden it wanted to put in place the things that cities with big aspirations had in place, and the arts were an important component of all that."

To the generation that came of age in the 1950s and early 60s, the arts meant theater, opera and ballet. To their kids, culture was something else altogether.

Sound: (Sonics game)

King County Executive Dow Constantine was raised in West Seattle.

Constantine: "The Seattle I grew up in, in the 60s and 70s, was a much more blue collar town, I think, straightforward town. That was the prevailing culture."

Sound: (Sonics game)

In a way, the weak economy in the 1970s was boon for Seattle–area musicians and artists. Rent was cheap for rehearsal studios or apartments, so you didn't necessarily have to hold down a full–time job to be able to live right in the middle of the city. But more than that, Dow Constantine says the Pacific Northwest's relative isolation helped foster a distinct creative identity.

Constantine: "We were off in the corner of the country, people pictured it as being in the woods, and it, you know, helped us in a way to be able to develop our local indigenous art and music."

Musicians like the Sonics and the Wailers and the Kingsmen, and guitarist Jimi Hendrix. But the world really sat up and took notice in the mid 1980s. That's when a fledgling company called Sub Pop Records released new music from local bands like Nirvana, Soundgarden and Mudhoney.

And they hyped the heck out of it. In less than a decade, the Seattle "sound" had become a major Northwest export, along with timber and Boeing airplanes. Music historian Peter Blecha:

Blecha: "I don't think the city fathers and leaders would have necessarily steered us to that place. I think they were very happy with us as the Space Needle place, the place you could see Mt. Rainier from, drive to Grand Coulee Dam. I know for a fact they wouldn't have us known as the rock–and–roll city."

Yet, by 1991, when Nirvana released its album "Nevermind," Seattle's reputation as a rock–and–roll city had almost eclipsed our claim to fame as a hub of American aviation. And music was only part of it.

Constantine: "Seattle changed a lot."

King County Executive Dow Constantine:

Constantine: "We went through that shock when the SST [Supersonic Transport] program was killed. We went through several more economic shocks because our economy was so narrowly based on Boeing. The economic shocks created room for people to do other things."

Not just rock music. In 1971, the year Boeing lost its SST contract, two coffee lovers opened a cafe in the Pike Place Market. They named it Starbucks, after a character from the novel Moby Dick. By 1992, new Starbucks owner Howard Schultz had expanded this stand alone cafe into 165 stores nationwide. Meanwhile, across Lake Washington, another international behemoth had taken root. Seattle natives Bill Gates and Paul Allen moved their young software company from New Mexico to Bellevue in 1979. By 1986, Microsoft made its initial public stock offering. Former Mayor Wes Uhlman says Seattle's cultural scene was partly responsible for this economic diversification.

Uhlman: "Some things are accidental — Bill Boeing from Seattle and Bill Gates, 'Trey,' the third, from Seattle. That's how those things started. A lot of other activity is not because of a person's locality but rather the whole entity of the city of Seattle. People want to come here, locate jobs here, businesses, if all the other pieces are together."

Rock musicians, software engineers and gourmet coffee merchants have reshaped the city's image. Like it or not, these days when Seattleites travel, Peter Blecha says there's a wealth of touchstones to describe their hometown.

Blecha: "Probably Jimi Hendrix, Microsoft, Starbucks, grunge — the cliches."

Forty years after the Boeing Bust, you have to look hard to find traces of Seattle's blue–collar roots. But these new era Seattleites share something with the shipwrights and airplane makers who helped build the city: They're people who dared to dream big, then went to work to make those dreams a reality.

© Copyright 2011, KUOW

Music credit: "Psycho," by Sonics; "Touch Me I'm Sick," by Mudhoney; and "Purple Haze," by Jimi Hendrix.

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