Dire Straits, “Sultans Of Swing”

Written by January 7th, 2013 at 7:00 am

Some of the most enduring songs are the ones that completely buck tradition and convention, that is, they’re songs that a publisher would laugh you out of his office over if you were pitching. It’s possible that, if Dire Straits hadn’t cut “Sultans of Swing,” it might never have been recorded. Four verses, a guitar solo, another verse, another solo and out, almost six minutes – no chorus or bridge? Almost unheard of. Thankfully the writer of that song was an artist as well, and what an artist. Great writer, great guitar player, distinctive vocalist – Dire Straits leader Mark Knopfler was the whole package, and when the world finally heard his group’s debut album in 1978 a star was born.

Knopfler had been playing and writing for more than a decade, making a living as a journalist and a lecturer before the band’s eponymous Dire Straits album hit. Produced by Steve Winwood’s less celebrated brother Muff, it took months for the album to attract any attention, and “Sultans of Swing” was actually released as a single twice before the public caught on.

“Sultans of Swing” was a song about some guys who had a band on the weekend that could have been written about any cover band in any town in the world, not just a band playing Dixieland in London. With memorable, perfectly-timed licks on a clean-sounding Strat, it’s a study in barre chords in D minor, sometimes changing to the relative major chord, F, at both the first fret and at the fifth fret to suspend the C chord.

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.

“Sultans of Swing”

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 blowing 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
Coming in out of the rain to hear the jazz go down
Competition in other places
But the horns they’re blowin’ that sound
Way on down south, way on down south London town

Check out Guitar George he knows all the chords
He’s strictly rhythm he doesn’t want to make it cry or sing
But then 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 doing alright
He can play the honky tonk like anything
Saving it up for Friday night
With the Sultans, with the Sultans of Swing

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 played Creole …Creole

And then the man 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

Podcast: “Sultans Of Swing”

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