The Story Behind “Sultans Of Swing”

by Kevin Burton

    It turns out there really was a band called Sultans Of Swing that inspired the great 1978 Dire Straits hit.

   “Sultans Of Swing” is one of those tunes that stops you in your tracks. It just exudes cool.

   We tell its story, evoking a musical proverb from “Take It Away” by Paul McCartney and Wings: “You never know who may be listening to you.”

   “There really was a band called the Sultans of Swing. They were playing their jazz in a near-empty pub in South London one night in 1977, noticed by no one—except Mark Knopfler, the guitarist and singer of a brand new band called Dire Straits,” reads a story from the Best Classic Bands website.

    “Knopfler found it amusing, in an ironic way, that this band with the fancy name was holed up in a seedy dive, doing their best to entertain and receiving a shrug for their efforts. He went home and wrote a song loosely based on what he’d witnessed—these luckless but dedicated musicians, trying as best they could to reach the few people nursing their Guinnesses.”

   “Undeterred by the lack of both talent and (customers), their lead singer finished the set with a mildly enthusiastic, ‘Goodnight and thank you. We are the Sultans Of Swing,’ wrote Rob Hughes on “Knopfler at least left the pub with the seed of an idea.”

    Knopfler wrote the song at the apartment he shared with band members John Illsley and his younger brother David.

   “We were living on next to nothing and weren’t even able to pay the gas bill,” Illsley said. “We weren’t called Dire Straits for nothing.”

   The song in its original form was a dud, even to Knopfler. “But the song took on a smoldering blues groove after he scrabbled enough money together to buy a 1961 Stratocaster,” Hughes wrote.

   “That was the ticket,” Best Classic Bands wrote. “Knopfler retooled his composition, speeding it up and leaving plenty of space for his Strat to shine, and went into the studio in July 1977 with the band—his brother David on rhythm guitar and backing vocals, John Illsley on bass and backing vocals and Pick Withers playing drums—to cut a demo recording of the tune.”

   They took the resulting five-song demo to Radio London DJ Charlie Gillett, Hughes wrote.

   “Charlie went absolutely crazy about it,” Illsley remembers. “On air he said: ‘I’m going to play this until somebody picks this band up,’ which I thought was quite a bold thing to do. And thankfully they did. In those days one person at a radio station could really make a difference.’”

   “The whole thing is incredibly simple,” Illsley said of the retooled song. “It’s the playing that makes it intriguing. It’s that rolling rhythm on the guitar and a very simple bass and drums approach. Then, of course, it’s a story. And let’s face it, all good songs have a story.” 

   “Sultans Of Swing sees Knopfler folding the night’s events into the narrative. As the rain beats down outside, the band are blowin’ Dixieland,” Hughes wrote. “ Harry’s got a day job, but he’s up there giving it his all. So is Guitar George, who knows all the chords: ‘But it’s strictly rhythm/He doesn’t want to make it cry or sing/If any old guitar is all he can afford/When he gets up under the lights to play his thing.’”

   “Meanwhile, a small group of youths are 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.’ It’s as damp an evocation of thankless 70s publand as you’re likely to hear,” Hughes wrote. 

   “Sultans of Swing” nabbed Dire Straits a recording deal with Phonogram in the U.K., which sent them back to the studio to re-record the song, (which was) released on May 19, 1978, as part of what would become the group’s debut album. Meanwhile, Warner Bros. in the U.S. inked the band to a contract,” Best Classic bands wrote.

   Sales started slowly in the UK but gained momentum when the song became popular in Holland and then in the US.  Success in the US meant Sultans was re-released in the UK and started spreading like wildfire.

   By early ’79, the single had gone Top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic, as had the album,

   Dire Straits, of course, went on to become one of the most successful British bands of the 80s,” Hughes wrote.

   “I suppose you could say that Sultans Of Swing was the one song that started it all off,” Illsley said. “It had a huge impact. These are the catalysts that move you onward through life.”

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1 Comment

  1. I personally got burned out on that particular song but I’ll grant you it is a good one. I can also say that there were a lot of other great songs on that debut album. There are at least three tracks that I listen to often even now. Well done, Mark Knopfler. Well done! 🙂

    Tracy Duffy



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