You could say I listen to a lot of music (in fact, you’d have to say that). But in the thousands upon housands of records I’ve listened to in my time on Earth, I’ve only ever managed to find one song explicitly written about the art of mapping and titled with geographic coordinates. The fact that the song just happens to be written by one of my favourite acts of all-time just makes it stand out that much more.
“Map Ref. 41°N 93°W” was the eleventh track of 154, the third album by post-punk legends Wire released in 1979 (the track was also released as a single that same year, complete with a very cartographically-minded cover). The song itself is probably the most musically accessible on the album; a rather catchy item. What really makes it of interest with regards to this blog, however, is the lyrical content, referring to the imposition of artificial grids upon a landscape, and how they are viewed from the air:
An unseen ruler defines with geometry
An unrulable expanse of geography
An aerial photographer over-exposed
To the cartologist’s 2D images knows
The areas where the water flowed
So petrified, the landscape grows
Straining eyes try to understand
The works, incessantly in hand
The carving and paring of the land
The quarter square, the graph divides
Beneath the rule, a country hides
Interrupting my train of thought
Lines of longitude and latitude
Define and refine my altitude
The curtain’s undrawn
Harness fitted, no escape
Common and peaceful, duck, flat, lowland
Landscape, canal, canard, water coloured
Crystal palaces for floral kings
A widespread waving span of wings
Witness the sinking of the sun
A deep breath of submission has begun
The lyrics in the opening verse describe the experience one has flying over a wide expanse of land divided into squares for farming, knowing that this grid was designed faraway in a drafting room with a ruler.It should come as no surprise, then, that the actual coordinates of 41°N 93°W lead you to the heart of the Midwest United States and its massive township-and-range grid system. More specifically, using WGS84 (technically, since the song was released in 1979, it would be using NAD27 which would throw the location off a few tens of metres) it places you in a farmer’s field just northeast of Melrose, Iowa:
Google Street View imagery along the highway beside the field in which 41°N 93°W lies north east of Melrose, Iowa. Melrose (2000 census population 130) is known as ‘Iowa’s Little Ireland’ and was founded in 1882 by Irish immigrants. The streets all bear Irish-themed names, and the town even has its own version of the Blarney Stone.
When it comes to degree coordinates, the website of choice to visit is always the incredibly comprehensive Degree Confluence Project (where I have killed many sleepless hours browsing away to my heart’s content over the years). The entry on 41°N 93°W reveals the landscape of the exact point of land on which the coordinate sits: grassy and hummocky, lying in a denuded creek valley. So what would draw Wire bassist Graham Lewis into penning geography-based lyrics about such specific coordinates? For the answer, I delved into my personal library and pulled out this quote of his from Kevin Eden’s 1991 Wire biography Wire: Everybody Loves A History:
There’s actually a place called something like Centretown, Iowa. The song is about travelling. I flew from L.A. to New York in 1978 and crossed the mid-west, and it went on and on and on and on. It was just incredible that this grid system was imposed on an enormous stretch of land.
Well, it’s Centerville, Iowa, not Centretown, but regardless, it’s located just to the north of Melrose. With the song title symbolic of being smack-dab in the middle of the Midwest, it’s rather appropriate that a town called Centerville be located nearby. That takes care of the first verse. But what about the second verse, with its canals and crystal palaces?
The other verse refers to travelling through Holland, by road, seeing all the dykes which is another grid system. ‘Curtains undrawn’ — seeing these blocks of flats, like dolls’ houses with people sitting in them all day with curtains undrawn. It’s a travelogue.
You can certainly see where Lewis got his inspiration for the second verse just by looking at satellite imagery of Flevoland; its agricultural landscape is entirely engineered by humans thanks to polder reclamation:
In a 2008 email to cartographic design blog Making Maps, Lewis goes on to state his fascination with geography goes back to his schooling days (not to mention a love of numbers as well). A well-received cover version of “Map Ref. 41°N 93°W” was made for a 1996 Wire tribute album by another of my all-time favourite groups, My Bloody Valentine; this version was to be later appended to re-releases of their 1991 masterpiece Loveless as a bonus track.
Eden, K. (1991). Wire: Everybody Loves A History. London: SAF Publishing.
Kerski, J. and B. Wallner (2009). 41°N 93°W (visit #2). Degree Confluence Project, 18 April 2009. Available at http://confluence.org/confluence.php?visitid=15967. Accessed 9 November 2010.
Krygier, J. (2008). Map Songs: Wire’s Map Ref. 41° N 93° W. Making Maps: DIY Cartography, 11 March 2008. Available at http://makingmaps.net/2008/03/11/map-songs-wires-map-ref-41%C2%B0-n-93%C2%B0-w/. Accessed 9 November 2010.
Thorne, M. (n.d.). The Making of Wire’s 154. The Stereo Society. Available at http://stereosociety.com/154.shtml. Accessed 9 November 2010.
Uzine (2000). Graham Lewis Interview. Uzine. Reprinted at Wireviews. Available at http://www.wireviews.com/articles/i_graham_lewis_uzine_00.html. Accessed 9 November 2010.