Sultans of Swing
|"Sultans of Swing"|
|Single by Dire Straits|
|from the album Dire Straits|
|Dire Straits singles chronology|
"Sultans of Swing" is a song by British rock band Dire Straits from their eponymous debut album, written by frontman Mark Knopfler. Released in 1978, its 1979 rerelease made it a hit in the United Kingdom and United States.
The demo of the song was recorded 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 B-side, "Eastbound Train", is a live track that otherwise only appears on the Live at the Hope & Anchor Front Row Festival album.
Background and composition
"Sultans of Swing" was composed by Mark Knopfler on a National Steel guitar in open tuning. He thought the song was "dull" until he bought his first Stratocaster in 1977: "It just came alive as soon as I played it on that '61 Strat ... the new chord changes just presented themselves and fell into place."
The lyrics were inspired by a performance of a jazz band playing in the corner of an almost empty pub in Deptford, South London. At the end of their performance, the lead singer announced their name, the Sultans of Swing; Knopfler found the contrast between the group's dowdy appearance and surroundings and their grandiose name amusing.
Folk singer and Columbia recording artist Bill Wilson (1947–1993) claimed to have co-written the song. Wilson did not get a songwriting credit on the release, but claimed to have received some monetary compensation for his input.
The song is set in common time, with a tempo of 149 beats per minute. It is in the key of D minor with Knopfler's vocal range spanning G2 to D4. It uses a chord progression of Dm–C–B♭–A for the verses, and F–C–B♭ for the choruses. The riff uses of triads, particularly second inversions. The song employs the Andalusian cadence or diatonic phrygian tetrachord. All the chords are compatible with a D natural minor scale, except for the A major triad, which suggests a D harmonic minor scale. Knopfler used similar triads on "Lady Writer".
Shortly after Dire Straits formed in 1977, they recorded a five-song demo tape at Pathway Studios, including "Sultans of Swing". They took the tape to the influential DJ Charlie Gillett, who had a BBC Radio London radio show, Honky Tonk, hoping for advice. 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 re-recorded in February 1978 at Basing Street Studios for the debut album Dire Straits, produced by Steve Winwood's brother Muff Winwood. Knopfler used the guitar technique of finger picking on the recording.
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".
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 named "Sultans of Swing" the tenth-best song of 1978. In 1992, Life named it one of the top five songs of 1979. In 1993, Paul Williams included it 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 it in a list of the 50 best British songs. Guitar World ranked its guitar solo at the 22nd greatest, and Rolling Stone named it the 32nd greatest guitar song.
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 U.S., reaching No. 8 on the UK Singles Chart and No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and helped drive sales of the album, which also became a hit.
"Sultans of Swing" 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.
Knopfler has improvised and expanded the solo during live performances. The coda of the live recording on the 1984 album Alchemy stretches the song to nearly 11 minutes. Another 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, providing rhythm guitar.
|Chart (1978–1979)||Peak position|
|Belgium Singles Chart||14|
|Canadian RPM Adult Contemporary||26|
|Canadian RPM Top Singles||4|
|German Singles Chart||20|
|Ireland Singles Chart||6|
|Netherlands (Dutch Top 40)||11|
|Australian Singles Chart||6|
|New Zealand Singles Chart||12|
|South African Chart||3|
|UK Singles Chart||8|
|US Billboard Hot 100||4|
|US Billboard Adult Contemporary||46|
|Year-end chart (1979)||Rank|
|US Top Pop Singles (Billboard)||61|
|Canada (Music Canada)||Gold||75,000^|
|Italy (FIMI)||2× Platinum||100,000|
|United Kingdom (BPI)||Platinum||600,000|
^shipments figures based on certification alone
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- "Canadian single certifications – Dire Straits – Sultans of Swing". Music Canada. Retrieved 3 October 2016.
- "Italian single certifications – Dire Straits – Sultans of Swing" (in Italian). Federazione Industria Musicale Italiana. Retrieved 23 August 2019. Select "2019" in the "Anno" drop-down menu. Select "Sultans of Swing" in the "Filtra" field. Select "Singoli online" under "Sezione".
- "British single certifications – Dire Straits – Sultans of Swing". British Phonographic Industry. Retrieved 23 August 2019. Select singles in the Format field. Select Platinum in the Certification field. Type Sultans of Swing in the "Search BPI Awards" field and then press Enter.
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