“Sultans of Swing” is a song by British rock band Dire Straits from their eponymous debut album, which band frontman Mark Knopfler wrote and composed. Although it was first released in 1978, it was its 1979 re-release that caused it to become a hit in both the UK and U.S.
The song was recorded at Pathway Studios, North London, in July 1977 and quickly acquired a following after it was put on rotation at Radio London. Its popularity soon reached record executives, and Dire Straits were offered a contract with Phonogram Records. The song was then re-recorded in February 1978 at Basing Street Studios for the band’s debut album. The record company wanted a less-polished rock sound for the radio, so an alternative version was recorded at Pathway Studios in April 1978 and released as the single in some countries including the United Kingdom and Germany.
The music for “Sultans of Swing” was composed by Mark Knopfler on a National Steel guitar in an open tuning, though Knopfler did not think very highly of it at first. As he remembered, “I thought it was dull, but as soon as I bought my first Strat in 1977, the whole thing changed, though the lyrics remained the same. It just came alive as soon as I played it on that ’61 Strat which remained my main guitar for many years and was basically the only thing I played on the first album and the new chord changes just presented themselves and fell into place.”
Inspiration for the song came from witnessing a jazz band playing in the corner of a practically deserted pub in Deptford, South London. At the end of their performance, the lead singer announced that they were the “Sultans of Swing”, and Knopfler found the contrast between the group’s dowdy appearance and surroundings and their grandiose name amusing.
Folk singer and Columbia recording artist Bill Wilson (1947–1993) made the unsubstantiated claim that he had helped write some of the lyrics to the song while he and Knopfler were both studio musicians working a session in Nashville. Wilson did not get a songwriting credit on the release, but claimed to have received some monetary compensation for his input.
According to the sheet music published at Musicnotes.com by Sony/ATV Music Publishing, the song is set in the time signature of common time, with a tempo of 149 beats per minute. It is composed in the key of D minor with Knopfler’s vocal range spanning from G2 to D4. The song has a basic sequence of Dm–C–B♭–A as its chord progression for the verses, and F–C–B♭ for the choruses. The song’s riff makes use of triads, particularly second inversions. The song employs the Andalusian cadence or diatonic Phrygian tetrachord. All of the chords are compatible with a D natural minor scale, except for the A major triad, which suggests a D harmonic minor scale. Knopfler would later use similar triads on “Lady Writer”.
Shortly after the band formed in 1977, a musician flatmate of drummer Pick Withers having given the team the name “Dire Straits”, they recorded a five-song demo tape at Pathway Studios, which included “Sultans of Swing” in addition to “Water of Love”, “Down to the Waterline”, “Wild West End”, and David Knopfler’s “Sacred Loving”. They took the tape to influential DJ Charlie Gillett, who had a radio show called Honky Tonk on BBC Radio London. The band simply wanted advice, but Gillett liked the music and put “Sultans of Swing” on his rotation. Two months later, Dire Straits signed a recording contract with Phonogram Records.
“Sultans of Swing” was then re-recorded in February 1978 at Basing Street Studios for the band’s debut album Dire Straits. It was produced by Steve Winwood’s brother Muff Winwood. Knopfler used the guitar technique of finger picking on the recording.
Record Mirror ranked the song tenth in its end-of-year countdown of the best songs of the year. In 1992, Life named “Sultans of Swing” one of the top five songs of 1979. In 1993, Paul Williams included “Sultans of Swing” in his book “Rock and Roll: The 100 Best Singles”. The song is on The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll list, Dire Straits’ only appearance. In 2006, Mojo included “Sultans of Swing” in its list of the 50 best British songs. The song’s guitar solo reached No. 22 on Guitar World‘s list of the greatest guitar solos and No. 32 on Rolling Stone‘s list of greatest guitar songs.
The song was originally released in May 1978, but it did not chart at the time. Following its re-issue in January 1979, the song entered the American music pop chart. 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 1978. BBC Radio was initially unwilling to play the song due to its high lyrical content but after it became a U.S. hit, their line softened. The song reached the top 10 in both the UK and the U.S., reaching No. 8 on the UK Singles Chart and No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and helped drive sales of the album, which also became a hit.
“Sultans of Swing” was re-issued again as a single in November 1988, a month after it appeared on the band’s greatest hits album Money for Nothing, when it peaked at No. 62. It was also included on Sultans of Swing: The Very Best of Dire Straits and The Best of Dire Straits & Mark Knopfler: Private Investigations.