Desert Island Singles: “Sultans Of Swing” by Dire Straits (1978)Posted: July 20, 2014
“Some of the most enduring songs are the ones that completely buck tradition and convention; that is, they’re songs that a publisher would laugh you out of his office over if you were pitching. It’s possible that, if Dire Straits hadn’t cut ‘Sultans Of Swing,’ it might never have been recorded. Four verses, a guitar solo, another verse, another solo and out, almost six minutes – no chorus or bridge? Almost unheard of. Thankfully the writer of that song was an artist as well, and what an artist. Great writer, great guitar player, distinctive vocalist – Dire Straits leader Mark Knopfler was the whole package, and when the world finally heard his group’s debut album in 1978 a star was born.” – Rick Moore, American Songwriter
“Knopfler’s speak-sing delivery, a laissez-faire drawl reminiscent of Tom Petty and Lou Reed, contributes little in the way of emotion. Instead, snaky guitars — including a twang-dusted bridge that underscores Knopfler’s fluid, effortless playing — tell the tune’s story: a love letter to a bar band called the Sultans Of Swing, who live and die for the Friday night gigs where they can forget day jobs and immerse themselves in their tunes.” – Annie Zaleski, Ultimate Classic Rock
“(The band in the song) has no hope whatsoever at making it big. It is not a stepping-stone to someplace else. It is, take it or leave it, the meaning of their lives, and much of the record’s greatness is in the tremendous respect it evokes in every listener for these persons (whether they be great musicians or not) and the choices they’ve made. The ways they’ve chosen to live.” – Paul Williams, founder, Crawdaddy Magazine
“Sultans Of Swing” took everyone by surprise during the winter of 1978-79. It wasn’t disco, thank goodness, but it wasn’t new wave either. It told a story, but not in a “novelty-song” way. From the flam of Pick Withers’ drum it launched into a narrative about a London bar band. No one knew quite what to make of it. Despite that, or maybe because of that, it became a Top Ten hit and put Knopfler and Dire Straits on the map.
(When I bought the LP, a hipster sales clerk at the old Northern Lights Music on Hennepin in downtown Minneapolis ranted quite indignantly because some ignorant customer had the audacity to say that Dire Straits weren’t new wave. Considering how loosely-defined the term “new wave” was, he sort of had a point. Bad retail skills, though.)
I put this one on when I’m feeling low, and it always picks me up. “You feel all right, when you hear the music ring” sums it up for me. This is a feel-good song, one that puts you into another world for six minutes. The fluidity of Knopfler’s Stratocaster has carries the song, not only in the signature riff at the end of each verse but also on the two soaring solos.
I’ve referenced Dire Straits in “Desert Island Discs” before, but this is by far my favorite song of theirs. They arrived complete with this one. A nice tribute to musicians who play their hearts out for the love of the music.