A masterpiece. I was 12 when this was released and it sounded timeless even then. It was a great song in 1979 and will be great in 2079. Not only are the words inventive but this was most people’s introduction to Mark Knopfler. I wasn’t a guitar player when I was 12 but I knew he was something special.
I’ve heard this one at what seems like a thousand times but I’ll always turn it up when it comes on the radio.
Sultans of Swing peaked at #4 in the Billboard 100, #4 in Canada, #8 in the UK, and #12 in New Zealand in 1979.
Mark Knopfler was inspired by watching a lousy club band perform. Knopfler was in England on a rainy night. He ducked into a bar where a mediocre band was closing out the night to an audience that was maybe four or five drunks unaware of their surroundings. The hapless jazz combo ended their set with the lead singer announcing, “Goodnight, and thank you. We are the sultans of swing.”
Mark Knopfler: “When the guys said ‘Thank you very much, We are the Sultans of Swing,’ there was something really funny about it to me because Sultans, they absolutely weren’t. You know they were rather tired little blokes in pullovers.”
This song is about guys who go to a club after work, listen to music and have a good time. They are there for the music, and not for the image presented by the band. The song was a marked change from the waning disco style and the nascent punk movement.
Knopfler got a lot of songwriting ideas from observing everyday people, something that got harder to do when he became famous.
This was Dire Straits’ first single. It was one of five songs on a demo tape they used to get their record deal. The tape got played on London radio and started a bidding war for the band.
Despite the title, the song is not played with a swing rhythm.
A singer-songwriter from Indiana named Bill Wilson, who died in 1993, claimed that he wrote the lyrics to this song. He would often tell the story in concert, which was recorded for a 24-track CD that was released by a production company which recorded various artists between 1989-1995. One of the tracks is Wilson (identified only as “B. Wilson”) performing “Sultans Of Swing.”
There is an asterisk after his name and on the CD it says that this was from a live show performed at The Warehouse in Indianapolis, Indiana. Before Wilson plays the song he says the following: “I do this thing I co-wrote about, I guess, it’s been about 12 years ago I wrote the lyrics and a friend of mine used to work a lot of sessions for my old producer, Bob Johnston, and worked a session with this fellow from England by the name of Mark Knopfler. Has his own group over there called Dire Straits. He had this little melody. It sounded like ‘Walk, Don’t Run.’ And he had this little story concerning a band that nobody wanted to listen to. Only a few people show up to hear. So we got together one night after the session and tossed these lyrics around on a napkin and I guess I wound up writing most of the lyrics to the tune. Made enough money to buy a new Blazer that year I remember, so… didn’t do too bad. It goes like this…”
Then he starts playing an acoustic guitar, strumming Spanish style and singing “Sultans.” The lyrics are pretty close to what Mark Knopfler recorded but are slightly different. In 2009, this was posted to YouTube.
It is unlikely that Wilson’s account is true. Knopfler has never made mention of him, and Wilson is not credited for any contribution to the song. Also, the timeline doesn’t sync: Mark Knopfler didn’t come to America until after the album was released. The session work he did in Memphis was in the late ’80s and early ’90s when he was on a break from Dire Straits.
Sultans of Swing
You get a shiver in the dark
It’s a 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 the music ring
Well now you step inside but you don’t see too many faces
Coming in out of the rain they hear the jazz go down
Competition in other places
Uh but the horns they blowin’ that sound
Way on down south
Way on down south
You check out guitar George, he knows-all the chords
Mind, it’s strictly rhythm he doesn’t want to make it cry or sing
They said 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
Savin’ it up, for Friday night
With the Sultans
We’re the Sultans of Swing
Then a crowd a young boys they’re a foolin’ 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 playin’ band
It ain’t what they call Rock and Roll
And the Sultans
Yeah, the Sultans, they play Creole
And then the man he steps right up to the microphone
And says at last just as the time bell rings
“Goodnight, now it’s time to go home”
Then he makes it fast with one more thing
“We are the Sultans
We are the Sultans of Swing”