Sultans of Swing
|"Sultans of Swing"|
|Single by Dire Straits|
|from the album Dire Straits|
|B-side||Eastbound Train (UK)
Southbound Again (US)
|Released||May 1978 (original)
January 1979 (re-issue)
|Recorded||February 1978 (Basing Street Studios)
April 1978 (Pathway Studios)
|Genre||Roots rock, pub rock|
6:00 (Original version)
Warner Bros. (US)
|Producer(s)||Dire Straits (demo)
|Dire Straits singles chronology|
"Sultans of Swing" is a song by the British rock band Dire Straits from their self-titled debut album. It was written by band frontman Mark Knopfler. 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 USA.
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 early 1978 at Basing Street Studios for the band's debut album Dire Straits. 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.
Background and composition
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 Mark Knopfler found the contrast between the group's dowdy appearance and surroundings and their gradiose name amusing. Paul Williams writes that the band described in the song "has no hope whatsoever at making it big... It is not a stepping-stone to someplace else. It is, take it or leave it, the meaning of their lives, and much of the record's greatness is in the tremendous respect it evokes in every listener for these persons (whether they be great musicians or not) and the choices they've made. The ways they've chosen to live."
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 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. Knopfler would later use similar triads on Lady Writer.
The song was originally released in May of 1978, but it did not chart at the time. Following its re-issue in January 1979, the song entered the American music pop chart. Unusually, the success of this single release came more than six months after the relatively unheralded release of the band's debut album in October 1978. BBC Radio was initially unwilling to play the song due to its high lyrical content but after it became a U.S. hit, their line softened. The song reached the top 10 in both the UK and the USA, reaching number 8 on the UK Singles Chart and number 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and helped drive sales of the album, which also became a hit.
It was re-issued again as a single in November 1988, a month after it appeared on the band's greatest hits album Money For Nothing, when it peaked at No. 62. It was also included on Sultans of Swing: The Very Best of Dire Straits and The Best of Dire Straits & Mark Knopfler: Private Investigations.
|Belgium Singles Chart||14|
|Canadian RPM Adult Contemporary||26|
|Canadian RPM Top Singles||4|
|German Singles Chart||20|
|Ireland Singles Chart||6|
|Italian Singles Chart||12|
|Netherlands (Dutch Top 40)||11|
|New Zealand Singles Chart||12|
|South African Chart||3|
|UK Singles Chart||8|
|US Billboard Hot 100||4|
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."
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. The album version of the song featured a critically acclaimed extended guitar solo, reaching #22 on Guitar World's list of the greatest guitar solos and #32 on Rolling Stone's list of greatest guitar songs.
Knopfler improvised and expanded that solo during live performances. The coda of the live recording on the 1984 album Alchemy features one of Knopfler's most notable guitar improvisations. Another memorable live version of the song came as an 11-minute performance at the 1988 Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute concert in London when Eric Clapton teamed up with the band to play the song.
- Ingo Raven (18 November 2009). "Sultans of Swing – The alternate single version and the demo version – sound and gear". Mark Knopfler Guitar.
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- Williams 1993, p. 166-167
- "Digital Sheet Music – Dire Straits – Sultans of Swing". Musicnotes.com. Sony/ATV Music Publishing.
- Rooksby 2002, p. 104
- "Humble guitar hero in Istanbul tonight - Hürriyet Daily News and Economic Review". www.hurriyetdailynews.com. Retrieved 2009-10-07.
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- Kershner, Jim (3 April 1992). "Dire Straits: Tour Provides A Great Opportunity to See a Great Band". The Spokane Chronicle. Retrieved 17 April 2014.
- Marlowe, Jon (26 November 1980). "Dire Straits 'Making Movies' Stcks to a Reality That Really Sticks to Your Heart". The Palm Beach Post. Retrieved 17 April 2014.
- Starostin, Georgiy. "Dire Straits". Starostin Record Reviews. Retrieved 17 April 2014.
- "Record Mirror End of Year Lists". Rock List Music. Retrieved 17 April 2014.
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- "Music News: Latest and Breaking Music News". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 2014-03-22.
- Nathan Brackett, ed. (2004). The New Rolling Stone Album Guide. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 0743201698.
- Rooksby, Rikky (2002). Riffs: How to Create and Play Great Guitar Riffs. Backbeat Books. ISBN 0879307102.
- Williams, Paul (1993). Rock and Roll: The 100 Best Singles. Entwhistle Books. ISBN 0934558361.