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Sultans of Swing

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"Sultans of Swing"
Single by Dire Straits
from the album Dire Straits
  • "Eastbound Train"
  • "Southbound Again"
Released19 May 1978 (UK)
  • January 1979 (US)[1]
RecordedFebruary 1978 (album version)
StudioBasing Street, London
Songwriter(s)Mark Knopfler
Producer(s)Muff Winwood
Dire Straits singles chronology
"Sultans of Swing"
"Water of Love"
Audio sample
Music video
"Sultans of Swing" on YouTube

"Sultans of Swing" is a song by British rock band Dire Straits, written by lead vocalist and guitarist Mark Knopfler. The demo of the song was recorded at Pathway Studios, North London, in July 1977 and quickly acquired a following after it was put in rotation on BBC 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 eponymous debut album.

The B-side, "Eastbound Train", is a live track that otherwise only appears on the Live at the Hope & Anchor Front Row Festival album. The single would go on to reach the top 5 in Canada, South Africa, and the United States as well as the top 10 in Australia, Ireland, and the United Kingdom. The song has since remained a staple of classic rock radio, and is one of the band's most recognizable songs.[4][5][6]

On 12 September 1980, "Sultans of Swing" was the first song to air on a commercial station on the FM radio band in South Australia as part of a test reel for radio station SA-FM.[citation needed]

Background and composition[edit]

"Sultans of Swing" was originally composed by Mark Knopfler on a National Steel guitar in open tuning. He thought the song was "dull" until he bought his first Fender 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."[7]

The lyrics were inspired by a performance of a Dixieland 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.[8]

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.[9] The riff uses triads, particularly second inversions. The song employs the Andalusian cadence or diatonic phrygian tetrachord.[10] 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".[11]


Shortly after Dire Straits formed in 1977, they recorded a five-song demo tape at Pathway Studios, including "Sultans of Swing".[12][13] They took the tape to DJ Charlie Gillett, presenter of Honky Tonk on BBC Radio London, 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.[12]

"Sultans of Swing" was re-recorded in February 1978 at Basing Street Studios for the debut album Dire Straits, produced by Muff Winwood.[14] Knopfler used the guitar technique of finger picking on the recording.

Critical reception[edit]

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 those of Bob Dylan.[15] Cash Box said that "the phrasing of the vocals is reminiscent of Lou Reed" and that "the arrangement of moderate beat and excellent guitar work are exceptionally fluid and engaging."[16] Record World said that "The lyrics are thoughtful and the hook instantly memorable."[17] 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".[18] 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".[19] 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".[20] Classic Rock critic Paul Rees rated the live version on Alchemy to be Dire Straits' greatest song.[21]

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.[22]

Record Mirror named "Sultans of Swing" the tenth-best song of 1978.[23] In 1992, Life named it one of the top five songs of 1979.[24] In 1993, Paul Williams included it in his book Rock and Roll: The 100 Best Singles.[25] The song is on The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll list, Dire Straits' only appearance.[26] In 2006, Mojo included it in a list of the 50 best British songs.[27] Guitar World ranked its guitar solo at the 22nd greatest, and Rolling Stone named it the 32nd greatest guitar song.[7][28]

Chart performance[edit]

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 US hit, their line softened.[29] The song reached the top 10 in both the UK and the US, 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.

Other versions[edit]

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.[30] 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.


Weekly chart peaks for "Sultans of Swing"
Chart (1978–1979) Peak
Australia (Kent Music Report)[31] 6
Belgium Singles Chart[32] 14
Canadian RPM Adult Contemporary[33] 26
Canadian RPM Top Singles[34] 4
German Singles Chart[35] 20
Ireland Singles Chart[36] 6
Netherlands (Dutch Top 40)[37] 11
New Zealand Singles Chart[38] 12
South African Chart[39] 3
UK Singles Chart[40] 8
US Billboard Hot 100[41] 4
US Billboard Adult Contemporary[42] 46
1978 year-end positions for "Sultans of Swing"
Chart (1978) Rank
Australia (Kent Music Report)[43] 85
1979 year-end positions for "Sultans of Swing"
Chart (1979) Rank
US Top Pop Singles (Billboard)[44] 61


Certifications for "Sultans of Swing"
Region Certification Certified units/sales
Brazil (Pro-Música Brasil)[45] Platinum 60,000
Canada (Music Canada)[46] Gold 75,000^
Denmark (IFPI Danmark)[47] Platinum 90,000
Germany (BVMI)[48] Gold 250,000
Italy (FIMI)[49] 3× Platinum 300,000
New Zealand (RMNZ)[50] 6× Platinum 180,000
Spain (PROMUSICAE)[51] 3× Platinum 180,000
United Kingdom (BPI)[52] 2× Platinum 1,200,000

^ Shipments figures based on certification alone.
Sales+streaming figures based on certification alone.


  1. ^ "Dire straits single UK cat no".
  2. ^ All Music Guide: The Definitive Guide to Popular Music (4th ed.). Hal Leonard Corporation. 2001. p. 120. ISBN 0879309237.
  3. ^ Breihan, Tom (26 October 2020). "The Number Ones: Dire Strait's "Money for Nothing"". Stereogum. Retrieved 10 October 2022. ...their drawling, drowsy roots-rock song "Sultans Of Swing"...
  4. ^ Gallucci, Michael. "Top 10 Dire Straits Songs". Ultimate Classic Rock. Retrieved 21 December 2021.
  5. ^ Reespublished, Paul (17 April 2015). "The Top 10 Best Dire Straits Songs". loudersound. Retrieved 21 December 2021.
  6. ^ "31 Best Classic Rock Songs Ever Made (All Time Hits)". Music Grotto. 13 September 2021. Retrieved 21 December 2021.
  7. ^ a b "100 Greatest Guitar Solos: No. 22 'Sultans of Swing' (Mark Knopfler)". Guitar World. 21 October 2008. Retrieved 1 April 2021.
  8. ^ "Song Stories - "Sultans of Swing"". Rolling Stone. Archived from the original on 2 May 2014. Retrieved 16 April 2014.
  9. ^ "Digital Sheet Music – Dire Straits – Sultans of Swing". Musicnotes.com. Sony/ATV Music Publishing. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  10. ^ "Spinning on Air". WNYC.org. All of the chords are compatible with a D natural minor scale, except for the A major triad which suggests a D harmonic minor scale.
  11. ^ Rooksby 2002, p. 104
  12. ^ a b Oldfield 1984, p. 42
  13. ^ Wooldridge 2002, p. 1962
  14. ^ "On Every Street" official tour programme.
  15. ^ Tucker, Ken (25 January 1979). "Dire Straits". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 4 December 2012.
  16. ^ "CashBox Singles Reviews" (PDF). Cash Box. 27 January 1979. p. 19. Retrieved 1 January 2022.
  17. ^ "Hits of the Week" (PDF). Record World. 27 January 1979. p. 1. Retrieved 12 February 2023.
  18. ^ Brackett 2004, p. 242
  19. ^ Kershner, Jim (3 April 1992). "Dire Straits: Tour Provides A Great Opportunity to See a Great Band". Spokane Chronicle. Retrieved 17 April 2014.
  20. ^ 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.
  21. ^ Rees, Paul (17 April 2015). "The Top 10 Best Dire Straits Songs". Classic Rock. Louder Sound. Retrieved 22 June 2022.
  22. ^ Moore, Rick (7 January 2013). "Dire Straits, 'Sultans of Swing'". American Songwriter. Retrieved 24 May 2014.
  23. ^ "Record Mirror End of Year Lists". Rock List Music. Retrieved 17 April 2014.
  24. ^ "Life". Rock List Music. Retrieved 17 April 2014.
  25. ^ Williams 1993, p. 166-167
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  27. ^ "Mojo". Rock List Music. Retrieved 17 April 2014.
  28. ^ "Music News: Latest and Breaking Music News". Rolling Stone. Archived from the original on 31 May 2008. Retrieved 22 March 2014.
  29. ^ "Humble guitar hero in Istanbul tonight". Hürriyet Daily News and Economic Review. Archived from the original on 23 July 2011. Retrieved 7 October 2009.
  30. ^ Ruhlmann, William. "Alchemy: Dire Straits Live Review". AllMusic. Retrieved 26 May 2014.
  31. ^ Grant Dawe. "Top 100 singles in Australia 1978". Retrieved 12 July 2019.
  32. ^ "Sultans of swing in Belgian Chart". Ultratop and Hung Medien. Retrieved 13 June 2013.
  33. ^ "Sultans of swing in Canadian Adult Contemporary Chart". Library and Archives Canada. Archived from the original on 2 November 2014. Retrieved 13 June 2013.
  34. ^ "Sultans of swing in Canadian Top Singles Chart". Library and Archives Canada. Archived from the original on 2 November 2014. Retrieved 13 June 2013.
  35. ^ "Sultans of swing in German Chart". Media control. Archived from the original on 2 November 2014. Retrieved 13 June 2013.
  36. ^ "Sultans of swing in Irish Chart". IRMA. Retrieved 13 June 2013. Only one result when searching "Sultans of swing"
  37. ^ "Sultans of swing in Netherlands Chart". Nederlandse Top 40. Retrieved 13 June 2013.
  38. ^ Hung Medien. "Sultans of swing in New Zealand Chart". Retrieved 13 June 2013.
  39. ^ John Samson. "Sultans of swing in South African Chart". Retrieved 13 June 2013.
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  41. ^ "Dire Straits awards on Allmusic". AllMusic. Retrieved 13 June 2013.
  42. ^ Whitburn, Joel (1993). Top Adult Contemporary: 1961–1993. Record Research. p. 74.
  43. ^ "Kent Music Report No 236 – 1 January 1979 > National Top 100 Singles for 1978". Kent Music Report. Retrieved 14 February 2022 – via Imgur.com.
  44. ^ "1979 Talent in Action – Year End Charts : Pop Singles". Billboard. Vol. 91, no. 51. 22 December 1979. p. TIA-10.
  45. ^ "Brazilian single certifications – Dire Straits – Sultans of Swing" (in Portuguese). Pro-Música Brasil. Retrieved 6 February 2024.
  46. ^ "Canadian single certifications – Dire Straits – Sultans of Swing". Music Canada. Retrieved 3 October 2016.
  47. ^ "Danish single certifications – Dire Straits – Sultans of Swing". IFPI Danmark. Retrieved 26 September 2021.
  48. ^ "Gold-/Platin-Datenbank (Dire Straits; 'Sultans of Swing')" (in German). Bundesverband Musikindustrie. Retrieved 26 June 2023.
  49. ^ "Italian single certifications – Dire Straits – Sultans of Swing" (in Italian). Federazione Industria Musicale Italiana. Retrieved 30 October 2023.
  50. ^ "New Zealand single certifications – Dire Straits – Sultans of Swing". Recorded Music NZ. Retrieved 24 May 2024.
  51. ^ "Spanish single certifications – Dire Straits – Sultans of Swing". El portal de Música. Productores de Música de España. Retrieved 7 February 2024.
  52. ^ "British single certifications – Dire Straits – Sultans of Swing". British Phonographic Industry. Retrieved 6 January 2023.


External links[edit]