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, blues 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 grandiose 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."
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. Highly improbable since Knopfler first visited Nashville 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 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.
Shortly after forming in 1977, Dire Straits (a name given to the band by a musician flatmate of drummer Pick Withers), recorded a five-song demo tape at Pathway Studios which included "Sultans of Swing" in addition to "Water of Love", "Down to the Waterline", "Wild West End" and David Knopfler's "Sacred Loving". They took the tape to influential DJ Charlie Gillett, who had a radio show called "Honky Tonk" on BBC Radio London. The band simply wanted advice, but Gillett liked the music and put "Sultans of Swing" on his rotation. Two months later, Dire Straits signed a recording contract with Phonogram Records.
"Sultans of Swing" was then re-recorded in February 1978 at Basing Street Studios for the band's debut album Dire Straits. It was produced by Muff Winwood. Knopfler used the guitar technique of finger picking on the recording. The distinctive "clean" tone was created by jamming Knopler's Fender Stratocaster into the middle bridge pickup position.
The song was originally released in May 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."
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 Waits were 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.
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, stretching the song to nearly 11 minutes. Another memorable live version of the song came at the 1988 Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute concert in London when Eric Clapton teamed up with the band to play the song.
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