Maps and musicians – the B-side
Following on from part one from our look at musicians links to maps, comes the difficult second album, as we look at five more artists and their relationships to maps. Without further ado, let’s get going again…
Born as Mathangi Arulpragasam in Hounslow to Sri Lankan Tamil resistance activists, being raised in both Sri Lanka, India and back to London – the artist known as M.I.A., was perhaps always going to have unique geographical take on the world. The Grammy winning artist, is known for her unusual sound sampling, provocative lyrics and subject matters in her work – her career particularly taking off with ‘Paper Planes’. Probably her best known song, it touches on globalisation, perception of migrants in western society, and her own experiences with US Homeland Security.
It’s a subject she touches on again in 2016, with her song ‘Borders’. While the lyrics and music video are obvious references to the ongoing refugee ‘crisis’ in Europe (particularly the Mediterranean), it’s gets straight to human constructions of geography:
“Borders, what’s up with that? […] Broke people, what’s up with that? Boat people, what’s up with that? […] Yeah f*** ’em when we say we’re not with them. We’re solid and we don’t need to kick them. This is North, South, East and Western.”
Some might argue it’s an anti-geography song, I beg to differ. It’s an alternative look on geography and the power/meaning of ‘lines on maps’. It’s the classic globalist or post-modernist deep take on things – Why do we have borders on maps? Asking questions about the geography around us – that’s pretty pro-geography to me.
Enter the world of Muse and you will walk into a world of science fiction, space rock, apocalypse, conspiracy theories and ‘out-of-this world’ guitar riffs and solos from the lead singer and guitarist Matt Bellamy. Known for their incredible live performances, the alternative rock trio are no ordinary band, covering topics from laws of thermodynamics, supermassive black holes to ‘exogenesis’ of life on other planets. On planet Earth however, the trio from Devon formed in a small seaside town at Teignmouth Community College in the mid 1990s, and their debut album ‘Showbiz’ (1999) touches on the isolating geography of trying to make it as a band from a small town. Fast forward to 2007, and on the back of the success of ‘Absolution’ (2003) and ‘Black Holes and Revelations’ (2006), they became the first band to sellout the new Wembley Stadium.
Along the way, came two songs linked to maps – ‘Map of Your Head’ and ‘Map of the Problematique’ – the latter of which has been used in many the background of TV programmes. Moving forward, while looking at the more military usage of UAVs, Muse released the album ‘Drones’. Although in typical Muse fashion, the music and lyrics look at the more ‘sinister’ usage of technology, there is a geospatial link as UAVs also form a big part of geospatial research and data capture. Additionally comes the 10 minute track, ‘The Globalist’, which while hinting a Bellamy’s geo-political views, also reflects on an alternative destroyed post-nuclear war world, which has also parallels to impacts of British Empire on the world.
The band Coldplay are one of the biggest bands in the world currently, and arguably the most successful and consistent bands since the turn of the century. Forming whilst students at University College London (incidentally also the forming place for Britpop bands Suede and Elastica), they were one of the first bands to emerge from the ‘post-Britpop’ era, and the most successful. While their sometimes melancholic style hasn’t been for everyone, the progression and evolution of their music from the more acoustic driven first album ‘Parachutes’, through to more expansive pop-rock (sometimes synth driven), recent releases have earned them a mass global following.
So where do maps come in? After the success of their second album, ‘A Rush of Blood to the Head’ (still one of my all-time favourites), came ‘X & Y’. To Coldplay/music fans, this means ‘Speed of Sound’, ‘Fix You’ and another number 1 album. To mappers, the words X and Y, makes one think of Cartesian coordinates. This isn’t the only reference to maps – the first track on the album is a personal favourite called ‘Square One’. With much of Coldplay’s lyrics referring to the wonder of the world around them, see ‘Don’t Panic’ (music video looks like a diagram from a geography textbook) and ‘Speed of Sound’, it’s perhaps not too large a jump to suggest geography matters to them. As if to emphasise this – they have map on their website charting the history of the band.
Probably one of music’s most underappreciated and underrated bands, especially of the 1970’s and 80’s, Swindon’s very own XTC went on a journey from jaggedy, catchy new-wave rock out of the embers of punk, through to emulating The Beatles and The Monkees in the late 1980s. Led by singer-songwriters, the eccentric Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding on bass formed the nucleus of the band, releasing their first album in 1977. They came to prominence after recruiting fellow Swindonian (and my dad’s old classmate) Dave Gregory on guitar, with ‘Drums and Wires’ (1979) spawning the Moulding led hit ‘Making Plans for Nigel’. Black Sea (1980) and English Settlement (1981) followed, including arguably the band’s biggest hit ‘Senses Working Overtime’ from Partridge.
During this, their biggest commercial success however, Partridge suffered a breakdown onstage following his withdrawal from valium – resulting in the band never touring again. The music, more folk/pop-driven now, continued however in the studio, with ‘Skylarking’ (1986) and ‘Oranges and Lemons’ (1988) recorded in the States, helping them revive their career and add to their cult following in the US and UK. This is where maps come in.
Tucked away in the cover art of their second album, ‘Go 2’ (1978), is a map (see above) of Swindon produced by Colin Moulding himself. See it turns out Moulding liked collecting old maps and had a bash at cartography himself. An ‘old school’ personal map was created with a curious map legend, including ‘Place of Virginity Loss’ and ‘Place of Retribution’! This comes full circle on ‘Skylarking’, with ‘The Meeting Place’, also figuring on this earlier map, a song about a place as young schoolkid to meet with friends and love interests. Completing this is timing of the very Swindon geographical feature of the hooter going off at the railway works (also referenced in another Partridge song), which could be heard all around the town.
Firstly, well done for getting this far. And a song which is undeniably about maps! Wire are a punk rock band that burst onto the scene in 1976, inspired by the first wave of punk, following in the slipstream of fellow Londoners ‘The Sex Pistols’. While never a commerical success and only making a slight dint in the UK music scene and charts, they are a continuing act who are cited as an influence for Guided By Voices, The Cure and My Bloody Valentine. It was on their third album, ‘154’, came the most mappy of tracks – ‘Map Ref. 41°N 93°W’. Bassist and vocalist, Graham Lewis, describes how the song’s lyrics originated from touring and two plane journeys over the USA and The Netherlands:
“I studied Geography at both O & A level and developed a fascination for maps and their reading… On this occasion one was able to read the epic landscape…vast gorges, an incomparable 2D flatness, meandering rivers, levees, oxbow lakes etc….with an unrelenting gridded road system imposed on top).”
I expect this is a similar awesome and intriguing feeling we all get as map and geography fans, looking out the window of a plane. On this occasion however, it inspired a geographically and cartographically themed song:
“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 there we have it a ‘proper’ map song! For those wondering, the map reference in the song title, 41°N 93°W, just so happens to be near a town called ‘Centerville, IL’ in the middle of the American mid-West. Maybe with the growing usage of maps in apps and daily life, we’ll be hearing more map songs and have more geographically inspired musicians to come.
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