Sultans of Swing (5:47)

Cover of Dire Straits

From Dire Straits and 160 other releases

“Sultans of Swing” was the first single release of the British rock band Dire Straits.

It was first recorded as a demo at Pathway Studios, North London, and quickly acquired a following after it was put in the rotation at Radio London. It did not take long for the popularity to find its way to record executives, and Dire Straits were offered a contract with Phonogram, a British record company. The song was then re-recorded and released in both the United Kingdom and the United States, though the demo version remained on the original UK Vertigo single.

It entered the American music pop charts in early 1979. 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 of 1978; the song reached the top 10 in both the UK and the U.S., reaching number 8 on the UK Singles Chart and number 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and helped drive sales of the album, which also became a hit.

With its Dylanesque lyrics and economic guitar fills, the song was a marked change from the waning disco style and the nascent punk movement. The arrangement of “Sultans of Swing” was straightforward: two guitars, a bass, and a straight 4/4 beat on the drums. Dire Straits’ original lineup has Mark Knopfler on vocals and lead guitar, David Knopfler on rhythm guitar, John Illsley on bass, and Pick Withers on drums.

The song’s story is that of the diverse members of a working-class jazz group who only want to play their distinctive sound in a small London club, and don’t care how popular they are. One player mentioned by name, “Guitar George”, may have been a reference to musician George Borowski.

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