Songs have the ability to create evocative memories of particular people and places. There are songs that help me to recall towns and cities I’ve been to in the past and even ones I associate with locations I’ve yet to visit. Map Ref. 41°N 93°W is the rather unusual title of a 1979 single by British new wave band Wire. The place this song always reminds me of is a Midwestern American town in Iowa named Centerville. I’ve never actually been there, but I once went to the trouble of finding out where it was and it’s stuck in my head ever since
Graham Lewis, Wire’s bassist and vocalist, had studied Geography at school and continued his interest in cartography after that. He wrote the first half of the song after observing an aerial view of the Midwest while on a domestic flight during Wire’s first tour of the USA. The second part was inspired by a train journey through Holland a few months later. In Kevin Eden’s book about the band, Everybody Loves a History, Lewis reveals that map reference 41°N 93°W are the coordinates of a town in the centre of the American Midwest with the rather appropriate name of Centerville:
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. 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.
Apart from oceans, there are over 10,000 points on the earth where degrees of longitude and latitude converge. There’s even a website called the Degree Confluence Project whose objective is to visit, photograph and chronicle as many of these locations as possible. Their website shows that they first visited map reference 41°N 93°W in 2001 and again eight years later. I can’t imagine that there are too many songs named after “lines of longitude and latitude”. Sadly, neither report contains even the slightest mention of this catchy little number with the unusual title. I mean, the place isn’t exactly the centre of the universe, is it?
The image represents a detail from the cover of the single & is taken from here