Red lines, blue lines; keys and legends; tumulus, barrow, bridge. Maps are charms; maps are mantras; maps are magic.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve read maps like novels: like poetry, in fact. Hours on the backseat poring over AA road atlases and gazetteers, matching the pages’ hieroglyphs to the world both blank and familiar beyond the Volvo window. Weekends scribbling on discarded rolls of wallpaper, ridged with rivers in crayon and settlements nuclear and dispersed; family haunts warped into parallel universes; alternative ordnances of bedrooms and gardens. The escapist stuff of children’s literature, stories about losing your way only to discover opportune shortcuts and alternative routes.
But it wasn’t just about adventure for its own sake. You sense early that mapping is an agenda, a politics. Imagining new space is often about finding the unmapped, that territory that has eluded the cartographer, somehow slipped through the nets of human knowledge. But it’s also about the very opposite, about plotting the course, about making a plot of the earth, in all senses: carving it up in order to give it narrative significance. Our group of school sad-sacks fantasised about lands colonised by other misfits; it was nothing less than a burning desire to rewrite history, to evacuate the winners from mapped space and fill the grid-squares with the losers. We learn these things early; learn how physical space is carved up, bounded and walled, used and abused according to the exigencies of power. Playtime is all passwords and border control. Don’t step on that line or you turn into a statue. Step over the line and you transgress; step onto the railings and you’re granted immunity. Valuable social lessons all: what else is being a citizen than observing limits for the greater good, what else is being a subject than knowing your place?
Yes, it’s all lines. You learn that queuing is important, though you do everything you can to hang a little off-margin and upset the regime. History, of course, happens in lines too; as Alan Bennett put it, ‘it’s just one bloody thing after another’. In English, you end up scanning them; in maths, drawing them. And all of it in ruled exercise books, which says it all really. Lines are indeed the rule. And if you break the rules, what do you get? Lines, lines, lines! According to Simone de Beauvoir, lines are patriarchal. They’re projections; the pointless protrusions of male pomp, like antlers and erections. Men are always thrusting, looking outside of themselves for meaning. I’ll draw a line under that; this is not a forum for my thoughts on early first-wave feminism. But I see it now. Maps as patriarchal instruments, as premises for war: the coloured territories that so fascinate the young Marlow in Heart of Darkness (and look where they led him). Who would have thought there’d be a song about this very subject, and what’s more, a song that flags the dangers of trundling the surveyor’s wheel, while revelling in the pleasures and mysteries of mapping? It could only have been by Wire, really. Wire, the great obscurantist art-punks, with their abstractions, their equations and taxonomies.
Wire have regrouped sporadically over the last three decades, and produced fine music on it, but their first and greatest period of activity lasted only three years, over three albums (Pink Flag, Chairs Missing and 154). 1977-80 was a time of staggering invention across British pop music, but Wire might just have been the most inventive of them all, and on release as a single in late 1979, their final 45 ‘Map Ref’ brought to an end the fascinating process of deconstruction and reconstruction that they set in motion with Pink Flag. Flag was their first album, a collection of un-songs, splinters of sound that made the verse-chorus structures peddled by their contemporaries seem very traditional indeed. It was as if Wire were saying the only way to be a punk was to be a post-punk; to be avant is to be après (a bit of pseudo-Derrida for you there). Only by smashing the pop song into shards could Wire begin to find their own way to piece it back together. To carry through the map metaphor, this was terra incognita; the ground virgin, the waters uncharted. Many of the lyrics on 1978’s Chairs Missing seem to acknowledge this obliquely. There’s the spine-chilling ‘Marooned’, in which ‘an unwilling sailor’ has come adrift from his vessel; ‘I’m standing alone, still getting a thrill / while the ship is afloat’, sings Colin Newman, tensed up with the power that comes of total erasure or whiteout. It’s taken further in the magnificent ‘Being sucked in again’, driven by frissons of cold guitar and neuralgic synthesizer, rife with imagery of dorsal fins and fishwives’ dreams. Where on earth do we find this strange land, populated by outdoor miners and flies in the ointment? No other musicians make late seventies England sound so Daliesque.
Sandwiched between the fractured melodies of Chairs Missing and the dark sweetnesses of 154, the single ‘A Question of Degree’ asks a big question over music of pitch-bending weirdness: ‘Can I really manage to survive outside? Can I? Can I?’ This is the height of meta, a Naked Lunch on the end of the fork moment. Is it possible to be in pop and yet marginal or external to it? Do you stay inside the lines or play in the unlimited field? Do you accept the binaries and work with them or submit yourself to the ecstasy of jouissance? This is absolutely a question of degree. And it’s one that ‘Map Ref’ answers in part, as Newman, Gilbert et al climb into their little chartered plane to survey the lie of the land. No more fish in freezing waters; here, Wire soar.
‘Map Ref’ is driven by an almost Krautrock beat, constant, rigid, measured. It’s a beat that walks great, unrelenting distances over endless fields or long tracts of prairie (the grid reference in the title actually points to Des Moines, Iowa, but this fact is a red herring, maybe even a prank). Yet this is not the coiled Wire of old. The cables have been untangled, the current is flowing. The sangfroid thaws, the blood runs warmer, and a pin-sharp sun is guiding the ‘cartologist’ towards the rocks and rivers which he must plot. These features are listed – the ‘crystal palaces for floral kings’, the ‘flat lowland landscape’ – but the song’s real excitement is reserved for the rendering of the material as abstract, the representation of territory as lines and squiggles much like those on the cover of the album. Its wondrously beautiful refrain (indicated with a typically pomo declaration of ‘chorus’) sings the praises of ‘longitude and latitude’ in stacked four or five-part harmony – it’s so harmonised I can’t actually tell – and registers a deep contentment in refashioning the world as a page of symbols and keys. I’m willing to argue that this is self-referential, the sound of a band standing outside of themselves and surveying their own progress, taking stock of how they have reconditioned pop by making it recondite.
Perhaps it’s a plateau, then; but there are always more distant ranges, some of them disappearing into cloud. The misty synths introduced at 2:29 are ominous, and the lyrics even more so. From this vantage, ‘Map Ref’ seems to be about the dangers of claiming land, of politicising it; even a pink flag planted in the underbrush of punk is a potential emblem of power, a power that can easily be abused. The opening lines take a punning, intellectual line on this: ‘An unseen ruler defines with geometry / An unruleable expanse of geography’. Are the cartographer and his ruler more powerful than the ‘rulers’ who use his maps to suppress communities and nations, and prosecute wars? The imagery becomes more suggestive towards the end. As Newman urges us to ‘witness the sinking of the sun’, he then admits that ‘a deep breath of submission has begun’. Is this some coded reference to the British Empire, on which the sun supposedly never set? What is this submission? Is it a people giving in to subordination? Or might it, more intriguingly, express a resignation at the end of empire, a submission to the final sunset?
Of the many things I love about ‘Map Ref’, this irresolute mystery is foremost. It’s a song beguiled, fascinated by mapmaking, but also one which confronts anxieties about the political implications and applications of cartography. And it’s a perfect metonym for Wire themselves: a band drawn in by the sweet charms of pop, only to be forever restrained by their scepticisms. In their time, they seemed off the map, but now we can see that they redrew the boundaries, just so that they could then sit within them. You have to work within the system to change it, but knowing you’ve changed it means you’re forever indebted to it for meaning. Paradox, aporia, deadlock. Vertices, grids, intersections. Wire’s music maps the puzzles of living. Read it, follow it, use it.