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Posted: 2008 11-28


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How The Sultans first played their Swing The Earliest Dire Straits on Film

This sound and song made ripples for miles when it first splashed into the sea of music like a some beyond-this-world comet. 

If you first heard Dire Straits after say 1980, it may be hard to 'get' how revolutionary this was when the music world first heard it.  By March of ’79,  Dylan is not only going to Straits’ concerts, but asking guitarist and songwriter Mark Knopfler to play on his next record –– which turned out to be the sonic & lyrical revolution Slow Train Coming.  Then in 1983 Knopfler both co-produced and played some of the tastiest guitar Dylan ever featured on a record –– the unqualified masterpiece Infidels.

If you can’t tell by the haircut, this is likely the earliest existing footage of Dire Straits –– with an air-date of May 16, 1978. That was the month Sultans was first released in the UK, and it wouldn’t be until 11 months after this that the song would peak at #4 in North America.

You get a shiver in the dark . . .”

What a classic song to debut a career!  Of course, Knopfler was already 30 when this (his) first record came out. This first demo masterwork celebrates music in both the lyrics and performance. The words could have come from Jack Kerouac's On The Road; the characters painted by Van Gogh in Arles; but nobody else could have sculpted the music.

It's also worth appreciating that this gorgeous sound is in its beaming blush of birth, and that Knopfler will take it and this specific song on a long, still-evolving ride. (Check out later versions to hear how the solos and improvisation developed here.)  Knopfler was revolutionary at this point, but his was no one-hit-wonder sound –– this was a life-long painting with a brilliantly bright, singular and uplifting color.  


= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = 

Sultans of Swing

(words & music by Mark 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


[following verse sadly sacrificed in this TV-shortened performance]

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'

YouTube Uploader: Max Jansson
Max Jansson

Dire Straits in Old Grey Whistle Test 15-05-1978.


Retrieved from Wikipedia:
Sultans of Swing on Wikipedia
"Sultans of Swing"
Dire Straits - Sultans Of Swing picture cover.jpg
Single by Dire Straits
from the album Dire Straits
B-side"Eastbound Train" (UK)
"Southbound Again" (U.S.)
ReleasedMay 1978 (Original)
January 1979 (Reissue)
RecordedJuly 1977
StudioPathway Studios
GenreRoots rock, pub rock, blues rock
6:00 (Original version)
LabelVertigo Records
Warner Bros. Records (U.S.)
Writer(s)Mark Knopfler
Producer(s)Dire Straits (Demo)
Muff Winwood
Dire Straits singles chronology

"Sultans of Swing" is a song by 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 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.


  • 1 Background and composition
  • 2 Recording
  • 3 Critical reception
  • 4 Chart performance
  • 5 Other versions
  • 6 Charts
  • 7 Certifications
  • 8 Notes
  • 9 References
  • 10 External links

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."[1]

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.[2]

Folk singer and Columbia recording artist Bill Wilson (1947–1993) made the unsubstantiated claim that he had helped write some of the lyrics to the song while he and Knopfler were both studio musicians working a session in Nashville.[3][4] Wilson did not get a songwriting credit on the release,[3] but claimed to have received some monetary compensation for his input.[4]

According to the sheet music published at by Sony/ATV Music Publishing, the song is set in the time signature of common time, with a tempo of 149 beats per minute. It is composed in the key of D minor with Knopfler's vocal range spanning from G2 to D4. 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.[5] The song's riff makes use of triads, particularly second inversions. The song is in the andalusian cadence or diatonic phrygian tetrachord.[6] 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. Knopfler would later use similar triads on "Lady Writer".[7]


Shortly after the band formed in 1977, a musician flatmate of drummer Pick Withers having given the team the name "Dire Straits", they 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".[8][9] 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.[8]

"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 Steve Winwood's brother Muff Winwood.[10] Knopfler used the guitar technique of finger picking on the recording.

Critical reception

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.[11] 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".[12] 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".[13] 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".[14]

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.[15]

Record Mirror ranked the song tenth in its end-of-year countdown of the best songs of the year.[16] In 1992, Life named "Sultans of Swing" one of the top five songs of 1979.[17] In 1993, Paul Williams included "Sultans of Swing" in his book "Rock and Roll: The 100 Best Singles".[18] The song is on The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll list, Dire Straits' only appearance.[19] In 2006, Mojo included "Sultans of Swing" in its list of the 50 best British songs.[20] The song's guitar solo reached No. 22 on Guitar World's list of the greatest guitar solos and No. 32 on Rolling Stone's list of greatest guitar songs.[1][21]

Chart performance

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.[22] 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.

Other versions

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.[23] 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, providing rhythm guitar.[24]

The master track of the song (with a longer, "cold" ending) is featured in the video game Guitar Hero 5 as a playable song and in the 2012 film Argo.[citation needed]

System of a Down have included a short version of the song in some of their live sets, with the words changed from 'We are the Sultans of Swing' to 'we are System of a Down'.[citation needed]

Don Partridge, one-man band busker and former pop singer, used regularly to play the song on the streets, and a live recording is available on YouTube. He had met the Knopflers in London before Dire Straits ever charted, and admired Dire Straits as a "true musicians' group".


  1. ^ a b "100 Greatest Guitar Solos: No. 22 "Sultans of Swing" (Mark Knopfler)". Guitar World. 21 October 2008. Retrieved 22 March 2014. 
  2. ^ "Song Stories - "Sultans of Swing"". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 16 April 2014. 
  3. ^ a b Fish, George. "Say Good-bye to a legend" (PDF). December 8–16, 1993. Retrieved 2016-07-27 – via 
  4. ^ a b Nichols, Rob. "Bill Wilson's back | Local Music Profiles | NUVO News | Indianapolis, IN". Retrieved 2016-07-27. 
  5. ^ "Digital Sheet Music – Dire Straits – Sultans of Swing". Sony/ATV Music Publishing. 
  6. ^ "Spinning on Air".  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.
  7. ^ Rooksby 2002, p. 104
  8. ^ a b Oldfield 1984, p. 42
  9. ^ Wooldridge 2002, p. 1962
  10. ^ "On Every Street" official tour programme.
  11. ^ Tucker, Ken (25 January 1979). "Dire Straits". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 4 December 2012. 
  12. ^ Brackett 2004, p. 242
  13. ^ Kershner, Jim (3 April 1992). "Dire Straits: Tour Provides A Great Opportunity to See a Great Band". Spokane Chronicle. Retrieved 17 April 2014. 
  14. ^ 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. 
  15. ^ Moore, Rick (7 January 2013). "Dire Straits - "Sultans of Swing"". American Songwriter. Retrieved 24 May 2014. 
  16. ^ "Record Mirror End of Year Lists". Rock List Music. Retrieved 17 April 2014. 
  17. ^ "Life". Rock List Music. Retrieved 17 April 2014. 
  18. ^ Williams 1993, p. 166-167
  19. ^ "Experience The Music: One Hit Wonders and The Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll". Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Archived from the original on 28 June 2011. Retrieved 30 March 2011. 
  20. ^ "Mojo". Rock List Music. Retrieved 17 April 2014. 
  21. ^ "Music News: Latest and Breaking Music News". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 2014-03-22. 
  22. ^ "Humble guitar hero in Istanbul tonight". Hürriyet Daily News and Economic Review. Retrieved 2009-10-07. 
  23. ^ Ruhlmann, William. "Alchemy: Dire Straits Live Review". Allmusic. Rovi Corporation. Retrieved 26 May 2014. 
  24. ^ Dougherty, Margot (27 June 1988). "South African Freedomfest". People. Retrieved 24 May 2014. 
  25. ^ "Sultans of swing in Belgian Chart". Ultratop and Hung Medien. Retrieved 13 June 2013. 
  26. ^ "Sultans of swing in Canadian Adult Contemporary Chart". Library and Archives Canada. Retrieved 13 June 2013. 
  27. ^ "Sultans of swing in Canadian Top Singles Chart". Library and Archives Canada. Retrieved 13 June 2013. 
  28. ^ Hung Medien. "Sultans of swing in French Chart". Retrieved 13 June 2013.  You have to use the index at the top of the page and search "Dire Straits"
  29. ^ "Sultans of swing in German Chart". Media control. Retrieved 13 June 2013. 
  30. ^ "Sultans of swing in Irish Chart". IRMA. Retrieved 13 June 2013.  Only one result when searching "Sultans of swing"
  31. ^ "Indice per Interprete: D". HitParadeItalia (it). Retrieved 13 June 2013. 
  32. ^ "Sultans of swing in Netherlands Chart". Nederlandse Top 40. Retrieved 13 June 2013. 
  33. ^ Hung Medien. "Sultans of swing in New Zealand Chart". Retrieved 13 June 2013. 
  34. ^ John Samson. "Sultans of swing in South African Chart". Retrieved 13 June 2013. 
  35. ^ "Dire Straits". Official Charts Company. Retrieved 13 June 2013. 
  36. ^ "Dire Straits awards on Allmusic". Allmusic. Retrieved 13 June 2013. 
  37. ^ "Canadian single certifications – Dire Straits – Sultans of Swing". Music Canada. Retrieved 3 October 2016. 
  38. ^ "Italian single certifications – Dire Straits – Sultans of Swing" (in Italian). Federazione Industria Musicale Italiana. Retrieved 3 October 2016.  Select Online in the field Sezione. Enter Dire Straits in the field Filtra. The certification will load automatically
  39. ^ "British single certifications – Dire Straits – Sultans of Swing". British Phonographic Industry. Retrieved 3 October 2016.  Enter Sultans of Swing in the field Keywords. Select Title in the field Search by. Select single in the field By Format. Select Silver in the field By Award. Click Search


  • Nathan Brackett, ed. (2004). The New Rolling Stone Album Guide. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 0743201698. 
  • Molenda, Mike (2007). The Guitar Player Book. Hal Leonard Corporation. ISBN 087930782X. 
  • Rooksby, Rikky (2002). Riffs: How to Create and Play Great Guitar Riffs. Backbeat Books. ISBN 0879307102. 
  • Oldfield, Mike (1984). Dire Straits. Sidgwick and Jackson. ISBN 978-0-283-98995-7. 
  • Williams, Paul (1993). Rock and Roll: The 100 Best Singles. Entwhistle Books. ISBN 0934558361. 
  • Wooldridge, Max (2002). Rock 'n' Roll London. Macmillan Publishers. ISBN 0-312-30442-0. 

External links

  • Lyrics of this song at MetroLyrics

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