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.