Album: Dire Straits
Released: 7 October 1978
Recorded: 13 February – 5 March 1978
Studio: Basing Street Studios, London
Mark Knopfler – vocals, lead and rhythm guitars
David Knopfler – rhythm guitar, vocals
John Illsley – bass, vocals
Pick Withers – drums
"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.
You get a shiver in the dark
It's 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 that music ring
Well, now you step inside but you don't see too many faces
Coming in out of the rain to hear the jazz go down
Competition in other places
Oh, but the horns, they're blowing that sound
Way on down south, way on down south London town
You check out guitar, George
He knows all the chords
Mind it's strictly rhythm
He doesn't wanna make it cry or sing
Left-handed 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
Saving it up for Friday night
With the Sultans, with the Sultans of Swing
And a crowd of young boys, they're fooling 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-playing band
It ain't what they call "Rock 'n' Roll"
And the Sultans, yeah, the Sultans, they play Creole, 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."