2021 Song Draft- Round 3 Pick 3- A Sound Day selects- ‘Sultans Of Swing’- Dire Straits.

Last time out here I picked an obscure, but worthy song from a Toronto band few outside of the city had heard of. Few in the city have probably heard of them, truth be known. I dedicated the pick to the many hard-working musicians who fly under the radar and play night after night for the love of making music and the glimmering hope of maybe someday hitting it big. This time around I pick a song that is about that, by a band which was at the time like that – “Sultans of Swing” by Dire Straits.

It launched the career of a band that quickly went on to become one of Britain’s biggest and most respected… their Brothers in Arms album would be the biggest-seller of the 1980s in the UK and sell in the tens of millions worldwide. And it all started with a little ditty about another blue collar bar band who dubbed themselves the Sultans of Swing.

The song is now a rock radio classic of course, and Dire Straits got to play some of the biggest concerts of their time including Live Aid. But it wasn’t always that way. When they first let this song be heard, they were a struggling act without a record deal themselves. Singer/guitarist Mark Knopfler was nearly 30 years old and as the band’s bassist, John Illsley – Knopfler’s roommate at the time – recalls, “we were living on next to nothing. We weren’t even able to pay the gas bill.”

But they had talent. Mark was not only a highly-talented guitarist who could finger pick with the best of them, but a good writer (he had an English degree after all) and most importantly, a great eye and ear for interesting stories. “Sultans of Swing” came about rather like his lyrics suggest. It was a rainy night in the Deptford neighborhood of London and Knopfler was walking around. He stopped in at a rather dingy, and nearly empty pub for a quick pint and there was a jazz-ish type band playing on stage. “They were rather tired blokes in pullovers,” he later said of them. They also weren’t of earth-shattering talent. But they had confidence. At the end when the “time bell (rang)” they said enthusiastically “Good night! We are the Sultans of Swing!”. Knopfler found that pretty funny, given the surroundings and disinterest…as the song suggests, a few drunken youth who “don’t give a damn about any trumpet-playing band.”  He went home and fashioned out the song.

He played it first on an old steel guitar, but he and the others in the band felt it lacked a little something. But when he altered a few chords and guitars “it came alive as I played it on that ’61 Strat!”. Indeed it did. They found the money to record a demo of it and passed some copies out. One ended up with a BBC DJ, Charlie Gillett, who liked it and decided to play it on his show, despite them not having an official record out. That did the trick. People started requesting it at the BBC, and soon Phonogram signed them and got them to re-record it and an entire album, their late-’78 self-titled debut.

“Sultans of Swing” sounded like little else on air in 1979. It wasn’t British punk or new wave, nor disco or the polished California pop sounds that North America adored. People far and wide took notice. The Spokane Chronicle suggested it was “remarkable, both for its lyrics and the phenomenal guitar sound of Knopfler.” Rolling Stone soon gave it a listen and declared it the highlight off a very good debut, and compared Mark to Bob Dylan (which is often a heavy cross to bear for a new musician.)   The song hit the top 5 in the U.S. and Canada and top 10 in Britain, and pushed the album to double-platinum status in both their homeland and States, and double that in Canada.

For me, it’s a great song I never get tired of. I love the story-telling ways and the pace and of course that guitar. I’m not a fan of self-indulgent guitar solos Heavy Metal style, but I love Mark’s tasteful little solo at the end … and get annoyed when radio fade out to cut it from our listening experience. Guitar World agree, ranking it as the 22nd best guitar solo of all-time.

Beginner’s luck? Hardly. The band followed it up with several great song-based albums. As Illsley points out, luck might have had a wee bit to do with it but “the fact of the matter was it was a bloody good song, the band was pretty damn good and we worked bloody hard.”  Always a good recipe for musical success.

Sadly, no one seems to have kept track of the real Sultans of Swing that were on stage that night to find out what their day jobs were… or how they felt in being immortalized in song.


  1. That was one of those songs that I was hooked in the first time I heard it. Had to find out who did the song- and then ran out to buy the album. Terrific write up.

    • thanks Hans. Yep, it was a good one that really stood out. I soon bought the single after hearing it. It seemed like in a 12 month period over the end of ’79 & earlyish ’80 there was SO much good music coming out that sounded totally different… from this to “heart of Glass” to “Games without Frontiers” to “Cruel to Be Kind”… music was going all over the map, but in cool directions.

  2. This song is greatness…or as close as you can get to it. Some bands release a song that stands out among the rest. You knew when you first heard it that it was an instant classic. Sometimes movies are that way…
    A song that you know the solo just was well as you do the words…how many songs can you say that about? I thought he sounded like Dylan when I first heard it.

    • Many others compared him to Dylan then, and afterwards too, I think. A brilliant debut. And though the bassist is absolutely valid in the assertion it was a good song, good band and hard work, there was a touch of golden luck involved too… for that DJ to play a demo from an unsigned band on national radio – that didn’t happen too often (and alas, probably never would these days.)

    • No it wouldn’t happen today… “stick with the program”…. you cannot get a better debut than this song. The best debut song ever?

    • well, like I commented on my own site, I hate bandy-ing phrases like “best ever” around but this would be a strong contender. To me, only other one that comes close (off the top of my head) is “Baker Street” by Gerry Rafferty…BUT we knew Gerry before that as the voice of Stealers Wheel, so that’s sort of an asterisk> What do you readers think on that question?

    • would be a popular pick and it did shake up the music establishment. But to me, not an entirely memorable punk tune … with my own bias I like “Grip” by the Stranglers better among UK punk debuts.

    • Mark is something (gotta love a Scotsman). I love his guitar work and I love that he trots across the stage barefooted. I also enjoyed his talk/sing style with a bit of a tongue-in-cheek manner (Industrial Disease). I had an ex that bought Brothers In Arms (well, cassette) and played it quite a bit in his 1985 Camaro.

      They had several singles from most of their albums but, you rarely hear any of them…at least, not in my area. It seems Top 40 and/or Classic Rock stations stay with Money For Nothing, which I am sick of. I miss hearing Lady Writer or Romeo & Juliet. Every once in a while, I’ll hear Sultans of Swing.

    • great band. I know what you mean about radio. Here, I do hear “Sultans of Swing” but not as much as “Money for Nothing”, which maybe is a good thing. I love “Industrial Disease ” too, have only heard it in U.S. I think twice on radio, which is a shame.

  3. I always see local Maori buskers playing this – it’s got a laidback vibe, not far from reggae in some ways. I feel like I’ve heard it so many times it’s lost some impact, but the solo is still magical.

    • Lower Hutt, New Zealand. Haven’t been to the market for a few weeks because we’re on lockdown. The last time I went, I was as a stall where I could hear two buskers simultaneously, both playing different songs from Neil Young’s Harvest. And neither was Heart of Gold – and disappointingly neither was A Man Needs A Maid.

  4. Another song pick I love. I look at when this song came out and think how young I was then. It doesn’t seem that old. I too want to hear from the original ‘Sultans of Swing’. They have to be out there somewhere.

    • well we hope the original guys are out there, they’d be pretty old in all likelihood. As I said to someone else, it seems amazing no one back then seemed to follow up by finding out who that band were and their take on being immortalized in a song title. If anyone did, it seems to have entirely fallen through the cracks of cyberspace.

  5. What a song! I’ve always loved it. It has such a great sound to it. I don’t know of any guitar player who doesn’t praise Mark Knopfler. When I worked at the classic rock station, I was set to interview him about some project that I can’t remember now. At any rate, Mark had something come up and the interviews were supposed to be rescheduled, but never were. It would have been cool to talk to him, as he probably has SO many great stories to tell….

    • yes they did – especially over in the UK where that album was I believe briefly the biggest seller ever (and still is up in their top 5 or so ). But that was the problem I guess… too much pressure on them to follow up with something even bigger, internal conflicts, Knopfler no longer feeling like his old self … he said he couldn’t go out anonymously anymore so he didn’t pick up so many odd scenes to turn into a hit. I wonder if they might get back together some time ?

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