Dire Straits were a British rock band formed in 1977 by Mark Knopfler (lead vocals and lead guitar), his younger brother David Knopfler (rhythm guitar and backing vocals), John Illsley(bass guitar and backing vocals), and Pick Withers (drums and percussion). Dire Straits’ sound drew from a variety of musical influences, including jazz, folk, and blues, and came closest to beat music within the context of rock and roll. Despite the prominence of punk rock during the band’s early years, their stripped-down sound contrasted with punk, demonstrating a more “rootsy” influence that emerged from Pub rock. Many of Dire Straits’ compositions were melancholic. Dire Straits’ biggest selling album Brothers in Arms has sold over 30 million copies, and was the first album to sell a million copies on CD.
They also became one of the world’s most commercially successful bands, with worldwide records sales of over 100 million Dire Straits won four Grammy Awards, three Brit Awards—winning Best British Group twice, two MTV Video Music Awards, and various other music awards. The band’s songs include “Money for Nothing”, “Sultans of Swing”, “So Far Away”, “Walk of Life”, “Brothers in Arms”, “Private Investigations”, “Romeo and Juliet”, “Tunnel of Love”, and “Telegraph Road”.
According to the Guinness Book of British Hit Albums, Dire Straits have spent over 1,100 weeks on the UK albums chart, ranking fifth all-time. Their career spanned a combined total of 15 years. They originally split up in 1988, but reformed in 1991, and disbanded for good in 1995 when Mark Knopfler launched his career full-time as a solo artist. There were several changes in personnel over both periods, leaving Mark Knopfler and John Illsley as the only two original bandmates who had remained throughout the band’s career.
Sultans of Swing
“Sultans of Swing” is a song by the British rock band Dire Straits from their eponymous debut album, which band frontman Mark Knopfler wrote and composed. Although it was first released in 1978, it was its 1979 re-release that caused it to become a hit in both the UK and U.S.
The song was first recorded as a demo at Pathway Studios, North London, in July 1977 and quickly acquired a following after it was put on rotation at Radio London. Its popularity soon reached record executives, and Dire Straits were offered a contract with Phonogram Records. The song was then re-recorded in February 1978 at Basing Street Studios for the band’s debut album.The record company wanted a less-polished rock sound for the radio, so an alternative version was recorded at Pathway Studios in April 1978 and released as the single in some countries including the United Kingdom and Germany.
The music for “Sultans of Swing” was composed by Mark Knopfler on a National Steel guitar in an open tuning, though Knopfler did not think very highly of it at first. As he remembered, “I thought it was dull, but as soon as I bought my first Strat in 1977, the whole thing changed, though the lyrics remained the same. It just came alive as soon as I played it on that ’61 Strat which remained my main guitar for many years and was basically the only thing I played on the first album and the new chord changes just presented themselves and fell into place.”
Inspiration for the song came from witnessing a jazz band playing in the corner of a practically deserted pub in Deptford, South London. At the end of their performance, the lead singer announced that they were the “Sultans of Swing”, and Knopfler found the contrast between the group’s dowdy appearance and surroundings and their grandiose name amusing.
Columbia recording artist Bill Wilson allegedly made an unsubstantiated claim to many of the lyrics to the song while he and Knopfler were both studio musicians working a session in Nashville. His claim was dismissed as being highly improbable, since Knopfler had not first visited Nashville till long after the song was released.
According to the sheet music published at Musicnotes.com by Sony/ATV Music Publishing, the song is set in the time signature of common time, with a tempo of 146 beats per minute. It is composed in the key of D harmonic minor with Knopfler’s vocal range spanning from G3 to D5. The song has a basic sequence of Dm–C–B♭–A as its chord progression for the verses, and F–C–B♭for the choruses. The song’s riff makes use of triads, particularly second inversions. The song is in the andalusian cadence or diatonic phrygian tetrachord. Knopfler would later use similar triads on “Lady Writer”.
Critical reception to the track was universally positive. Ken Tucker of Rolling Stone singled out “Sultans of Swing” as a highlight of the album for its “inescapable hook” and compared Knopfler’s vocal stylings to that of Bob Dylan. The New Rolling Stone Album Guide called the song “an insinuating bit of bar-band mythmaking” whose lyrics “paint a vivid picture of an overlooked and underappreciated pub combo”. The Spokane Chronicle‘s Jim Kershner wrote that “Sultans of Swing” is “remarkable, both for its lyrics that made fun of hip young Londoners and the phenomenal guitar sound of Knopfler”, which “sounded like no other guitar on radio”. Jon Marlowe of The Palm Beach Post called it “an infectious, sounds-damn-good-on-the-car-radio ode to every bar band who has ever done four sets a night, seven nights a week”. Georgiy Starostin praised the “breathtaking arpeggios on the fade-out”.
Writing in 2013 on the impact of the song, Rick Moore of American Songwriter reflected:
With “Sultans of Swing” a breath of fresh air was exhaled into the airwaves in the late ’70s. Sure, Donald Fagen and Tom Waitswere writing great lyrics about characters you’d love to meet and Jeff Beck and Eddie Van Halen were great guitar players. But Knopfler, he could do both things as well or better than anybody out there in his own way, and didn’t seem to have any obvious rock influences unless you try to include Dylan. Like his contemporary and future duet partner Sting, Knopfler’s ideas were intellectually and musically stimulating, but were also accessible to the average listener. It was almost like jazz for the layman. “Sultans of Swing” was a lesson in prosody and tasty guitar playing that has seldom been equaled since. If you aren’t familiar with “Sultans of Swing” or haven’t listened to it in a while, you should definitely check it out.
Record Mirror ranked the song tenth in its end-of-year countdown of the best songs of the year. In 1992, Life named “Sultans of Swing” one of the top five songs of 1979. In 1993, Paul Williams included “Sultans of Swing” in his book “Rock and Roll: The 100 Best Singles”. The song is on The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll list, Dire Straits’ only appearance. In 2006, Mojo included “Sultans of Swing” in its list of the 50 best British songs. The song’s guitar solo reached #22 on Guitar World ’s list of the greatest guitar solos and #32 on Rolling Stone ’s list of greatest guitar songs.
Sultans of Swing – Knopfler
You get a shiver in the dark
It’s raining in the park but meantime
South of the river you stop and you hold everything
A band is blowin’ Dixie double four time
You feel alright when you hear that music ring
And now you step inside but you don’t see too many faces
Comin’ in out of the rain you hear the jazz go down
Competition in other places
Oh but the horns they blowin’ that sound
Way on down south, way on down south London town
You check out Guitar George, he knows all the chords
Mind he’s strictly rhythm he doesn’t wanna make it cry or sing
Yes and an old guitar is all he can afford
When he gets up under the lights to play his thing
And Harry doesn’t mind if he doesn’t make the scene
He’s got a daytime job, he’s doin’ alright
He can play the honky tonk like anything
Savin’ it up for Friday night
With the Sultans… with the Sultans of Swing
And a crowd of young boys they’re fooling around in the corner
Drunk and dressed in their best brown baggies and their platform soles
They don’t give a damn about any trumpet playing band
It ain’t what they call rock and roll
And the Sultans… yeah the Sultans play Creole
And then the man he steps right up to the microphone
And says at last just as the time bell rings
‘Goodnight, now it’s time to go home’
And he makes it fast with one more thing
‘We are the Sultans… We are the Sultans of Swing’
- Audio from the 1978 album, Dire Straits: