Regional anthem “Viva! Sea-Tac” celebrates 1990s Seattle culture, good and bad
Mar 15, 2023, 10:09 AM | Updated: 10:17 am
Viva! Seattle-Tacoma, Viva viva Sea-Tac! Viva! Seattle-Tacoma, Viva viva Sea-Tac!
That’s the chorus from “Viva! Sea-Tac,” a song written in London and recorded in Seattle 25 years ago by Robyn Hitchcock.
Over the past few decades, the song has become something of an anthem for the region, at least among a certain demographic. Robyn Hitchcock will be performing in Seattle this Friday night, so KIRO Newsradio set out to create the “unofficial oral history” of this somewhat esoteric — yet pretty darn catchy — song.
Heard on the recording is British folk rocker Robyn Hitchcock, who wrote the song. Hitchcock is backed by Peter Buck, founding guitarist of REM; a guitarist named Tim Keegan, who’s played with Hitchcock for years; Scott McCaughey, founder of the Young Fresh Fellows; plus Young Fresh Fellows drummer Tad Hutchinson and guitarist Kurt Bloch. The song was released in 1999 on the Robyn Hitchcock album “Jewels for Sophia.”
Details are murky, but it’s believed that the song was first played live at the old Crocodile Café in Belltown circa 1997 and was recorded right around the same time. Inspiration for the song goes back a bit further to 1994 and an impromptu musical event, also at the Crocodile, which was called “Viva! SeaTac” but which was also known as “The Popsicle Shoppe Incident.” Again, the details are murky.
Robyn Hitchcock has been performing since the 1970s when he was a founding member of a band called the Soft Boys. He spent a lot of time in Seattle in the 1990s, not long after his friend Peter Buck had moved to the area. Hitchcock told KIRO Newsradio he loves the name “SeaTac” – not just because of the airport, though that’s likely where he first heard it as a frequent visitor to the region. Hitchcock added “Viva” to it to give it a bit more zing.
For a songwriter, creating such a catchy phrase led, naturally, to Hitchcock writing a song.
“As often happens, you know, I have a title, and then a song will appear from it,” Hitchcock said from his home in the UK. “So I was sitting there with my guitar one evening in London, and out popped ‘Viva! SeaTac,’ pretty much intact in one piece.”
“It’s one of those songs that wrote itself in about 10 minutes,” Hitchcock said.
It’s a catchy pop song, to be sure, but it does have some darkness in it.
Do you want to pay for this in cash?
Viva! Seattle Tacoma, viva viva Sea-Tac
Viva! Seattle Tacoma, viva viva Sea-Tac
Viva viva viva viva viva Sea-Tac
They’ve got the best computers and coffee and smack
Coming and going it has to be Boeing
The best form of defense is blow them up
In a regular cup
Have an espresso. You will? Oh I guess so
I feel my heart is gonna start to jump
‘Cause it’s wired to a pump
For many, the line, “Do you want to pay for this in cash?” really captures the out-of-control feel of Seattle during the tech boom in the mid-1990s when everyone, it seemed, was making a fortune in stock options and buyouts and leaving traditional jobs for the tech sector. They were crazy years for those who lived here then.
Robyn Hitchcock says that beyond just the locals, people around the world were starting to notice Seattle for high tech and a handful of other specific things, not all of which were good, but which were on the rise in the 1990s.
“You could feel it there, but you could feel that vibe about Seattle from grunge and the heroin revival and the coffee” in other countries,” Hitchcock said, referencing the line in the song about “coffee, computers and smack.”
“Starbucks, I think, making it across the Great Divide and starting to appear all around America and then appearing in Britain made a huge impact … Those three things really put it massively on the map,” Hitchcock said. “It was like Liverpool in 1964 … Suddenly, Seattle wasn’t just the place where Jimi Hendrix was born.”
Along with Hendrix, “Viva! SeaTac” namechecks all kinds of other local people, places, and things, including Ballard, Kurt Cobain, and even “all of the groovers [who] came from Vancouver [and] some of them came up from Oregon.” Among the other lyrical highlights is the landmark-personifying refrain, “The Space Needle points to the sky, the Space Needle’s such a nice guy.”
Speaking of Ballard, the studio where the song was recorded was called Hanzsek Audio, located just a few blocks east of the Ballard Bridge on Leary Way.
“Yeah, it was in Ballard,” Hitchcock said. “It was a concrete block [structure] that had no visible features or charm. It was just like something that might have been designed to be bulletproof.”
“It had a coffee machine, and it had ants,” Hitchcock continued. “I remember somehow the ants had come up through the floor. I remember seeing a little trail of ants wandering around.”
Longtime Seattle audio guy Chris Hanzsek built his studio in that ancient concrete building – which he says originally housed a rectifier for the nearby street railway on 14th Avenue NE. Hanzsek Audio operated at that location from 1993 to 2005.
Hanzsek, who recorded hundreds of Seattle bands over the past 40 years or so, doesn’t play favorites, but he is clearly happy that “Viva! SeaTac” was recorded in the old concrete building on Leary. He understands and appreciates how certain recording studios become like “supporting characters” in so many cool stories and even mythology about recorded music – places like Muscle Shoals in Alabama, Sun Studios in Memphis, or Abbey Road in London.
“They are contributing entities,” Hanzsek told KIRO Newsradio. “The fact that the music existed is due in small part to the fact that the studio existed. They’re kind of like mothers that give birth to little things that then grow up to be bigger things.”
Hanzsek says he knows of no photos of Robyn Hitchcock or the other musicians arriving at the studio to record “Viva! SeaTac” in 1997.
“I didn’t know the internet was coming,” Hanzsek joked. “I didn’t bring a camera with me to work, I would have lost it. There was never any inclination whatsoever to say, ‘Hey, we got a bunch of rock stars here. Snap a few pics. Grab a selfie,’ you know.”
“I didn’t know what a selfie was,” Hanzsek admitted, though nobody did in 1997.
Scott McCaughey, who plays guitar and keyboards for the Young Fresh Fellows and who is involved with a number of other significant bands and musical projects, played bass on “Viva! SeaTac.” On the recording, it sounds like the musicians gathered at Hanzsek Audio were having a really good time.
“We were,” McCaughey confirmed. “We had a blast. It was so much fun. It was a really no-pressure kind of session. I don’t know. It was just . . . it was super fun.”
Kurt Bloch is a founder of the Fastbacks and a member of the Young Fresh Fellows, known mainly as a guitarist. He was thrilled to be invited to play with Robyn Hitchcock – whose music he’d loved since the 1970s.
But then Bloch realized that there were already three guitarists taking part, and Hitchcock wanted him to play keyboards.
“Well, you realize that I’m not a keyboard player?” Bloch said, re-creating the dialog which preceded the recording session. “’That’s okay, we’ll work all that stuff out,’” they told him.
“And all of a sudden, it turned from being the most exciting thing to, like, the most panicked, weird thing of all time,” Bloch continued, as he relived the anxiety of having to learn a new instrument for a recording session with one of his favorite artists.
“I was like, ‘You guys, do you have any, like, tapes of the songs were going to do or anything like that, so I can prepare in any way?’” Bloch said.
The answer was no. But Kurt needn’t have worried.
Bloch is a talented multi-instrument musician, and the keyboards sounded great in the converted concrete building on Leary Way. For proof, just listen to the buoyant chords from Bloch’s keys heard clearly throughout the recording.
Or, take Pete Gerrald’s word for it. Gerrald was an audio engineer for the “Viva! SeaTac” recording session.
“We just knocked it out,” Gerrald told KIRO Newsradio. “It was very kind of fun and low-key. It was no pressure at all, just really fun.”
“Probably did it on the third take, and that was it,” Gerrald continued. “Pretty straightforward. And then we may have done a backing track and may have dubbed a couple of things. But it’s pretty much live” with all the musicians in the same room, and the vocals recorded at the same time as the instruments.
Gerrald knows his historic regional theme songs; he was also the engineer on Sicko’s indelible version of “Washington, My Home.”
And speaking of historic regional theme songs, did Scott McCaughey have any idea people would still be talking about “Viva! SeaTac” 25 years later?
“I knew when we did it, I go ‘This is really cool. Like, I could see this at least around here being like a smash hit, you know,’” McCaughey said, chuckling heartily.
McCaughey still has the master tape, and though the sheet attached to the tape box has no date for the session, it does appear to confirm Gerrald’s memory that the third and final take was considered the best of the bunch.
The final moments of “Viva! SeaTac” include a spoken word blessing or what might even be considered a benediction for the people of the Evergreen State.
Long live everything in Washington state,
May they live to a million years
May they reproduce until there’s no room to go anywhere
Clustered under the Space Needle
Like walking eggs with arms and legs
One only has to revisit the “Louie, Louie” debacle of the 1980s to recall that officially sanctioned music can be tricky for the politicians involved in making such decisions. But it seems like “Viva! SeaTac” – with its clever lyrics and catchy tune, its deeply local connections to beloved artists and a fondly recalled studio, and its unflinching honesty about the challenging parts of Seattle culture in the 1990s – could possibly at least be designated as ‘the official song about Seattle written by an Englishman.’
“I don’t know how many English men have written songs about Seattle,” Hitchcock said when presented with this possibility. “It’s probably a limited pool, so I might well come first. I’d be thrilled if somebody wanted to put a plaque on it, you know, saying, ‘This here is Robyn Hitchcock’s contribution to our great folk culture.”
Meanwhile, “Viva! SeaTac” was already given a significant yet ephemeral honor when it was chosen as the first song played on-air and online when KEXP inaugurated its new home at Seattle Center in April 2016.
“I was actually driving from the new station while it was under construction near the Space Needle back to the old one when I heard this song on our station,” KEXP’s John Richards wrote in an email earlier this week. “And I knew that when we opened up one day, I would play this song first.”
As everyone knows, the Space Needle’s such a nice guy.
IF YOU GO
Robyn Hitchcock is appearing at the Neptune Theatre this Friday, March 17, and “Viva! SeaTac” is likely to be featured. Kurt Bloch will be joining Hitchcock in Seattle for additional dates on Hitchcock’s current tour. Bloch says he will be playing guitar, not keyboards.
You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.