The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #110: Sultans of Swing by Dire Straits (KEXP)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song and going until I reach Song . When you see the song title listed as something like: Song (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #110: Sultans of Swing by Dire Straits.

“Sultans of Swing” by Dire Straits was their very first single and was our introduction to a band who have gone on to sell close to 150 million albums worldwide; in fact, they are the fifth greatest selling band in UK history. Their string of hits include my personal favourite song of theirs, “Romeo and Juliet”, along with the Grammy-winning “Song of the Year”, “Money For Nothing” and other Top Twenty hits such as “Twisting By The Pool”, “Walk of Life”, “Telegraph Road”, “Private Investigations” and many more.

Dire Straits has been lead by singer/guitarist, Mark Knopfler all through their tenure as an official band. In addition to his work with Dire Straits, Knofler has also served as a session guitarist extraordinaire for the likes of Bob Dylan, David Bowie and Paul McCartney. When Knofler plays behind Paul McCartney, he often assumes the parts of Beatles songs that John Lennon would have played thus, enabling McCartney to, more or less, faithfully recreate some of his most famous hits.

When it comes to the song, “Sultans of Swing”, itself, the story is an interesting one. As it turns out, Knopfler, his brother, David and a few friends decided to make a demo tape of a few songs they had been playing around with. “Sultans of Swing” was one of those songs. They were able to make the demo tape for, at the time, the low, low price of $175 British Pounds. When they shopped the demo tape around, the producer who signed them said that he was as impressed with their economical ability to produce music on a budget, as he was with the power of their songs. Of those demo songs, “Sultans of Swing” was the one that stood out and was the obvious choice for their first single. As with many songs by unknown bands, “Sultans of Swing” did not receive a big promotional push. Instead, it was played by local DJs and ended up building up momentum based upon word-of-mouth praise from listeners. Eventually, the song ended up getting national airplay on the BBC and the rest is history.

The song, “Sultans of Swing” chronicles the life of a bar band. It is about being that kind of band who plays multiple sets a night in a local bar; often acting as mere background music to romantic encounters or drunken get-togethers by friends. The song is sung from the band’s point of view and featured the very skillful guitar playing of Knopfler. From this song, the legend of Mark Knopfler as a guitarist, as well as, a lyricist on a par with the likes of Lou Reed and Bob Dylan, was born. “Sultans of Swing” is a story song that talks about the life led by most professional musicians. Not everyone who plays, does so in front of packed arenas. Most sing their songs in places with sticky floors and sweat-soaked walls and bathrooms where machines sell condoms for a buck. If you can win over a crowd in a place like that then, you have found your calling. To some, once success arrives, the search for a return to that feeling of intimacy that comes from playing in a packed bar on a Friday or Saturday night is what it is all about. The Rolling Stones played the El Macambo nightclub in Toronto at the height of their fame for that very reason. There is a purity to being a bar band. The “Sultans of Swing” is the anthem to all who have lived that life and who continue to do so.

Here is a tiny bit of music trivia for you, before we end this post. The type of guitar pictured on the front cover of the hit album, “Brothers In Arms” features a shiny guitar; the kind that Mark Knopfler tended to favour. This type of guitar is made by the National Guitar Company and is generally just called, a “National” guitar. Anyway, in the opening verse of his hit song, “Graceland”, Paul Simon stated the following, “The Mississippi Delta was shining like a National guitar….” which was a direct reference by Simon to Knopfler’s guitar, which he admired.

So, without further delay, here are Dire Straits (with a very young, Mark Knopfler) with their very first hit single, “Sultans of Swing”. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song, “Sultan’s of Swing” by Dire Straits, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Dire Straits, can be found here.

Thanks, as always, to KEXP, for supporting all manner of artists and bands from around the world. The link to their wonderful website can be found here.

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

2 thoughts on “The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #110: Sultans of Swing by Dire Straits (KEXP)”

  1. While I enjoy a good number of Dire Straits tunes they released throughout their career, if I could only pick one, I think it would be “Sultans of Swing.” Knopfler’s guitar sound and melodic playing on this song are outstanding.

    In part, his sound results from his right hand playing the guitar with his fingers rather than a pick. I recall reading somewhere Knopfler used to lose his picks all the time, which is why he eventually resorted to using his fingers.

    I guess you could call it a nice accident that helped create his signature guitar sound!

    1. I think that he is a really good guitar player but, at the same time, in the public eye, I think he is terribly underrated. I could listen to Dire Straits any day.

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