Single Stories: Dire Straits, “Sultans of Swing”

Tuesday, May 19, 2020
Dire Straits DIRE STRAITS Cover

42 years ago today, Dire Straits released their debut single, a tune which would take them into the top 10 of both the US and UK singles charts for the first of what would prove to be many, many times. But it took awhile.

Written by Dire Straits’ frontman and guitarist Mark Knopfler, “Sultans of Swing” was a song that really didn’t do a lot for the man who penned it until he played it on the right instrument. Having written it using a National Steel guitar in open tuning, Knopfler told Guitar World that the song “just came alive as soon as I played it on that ’61 Strat. The new chord changes just presented themselves and fell into place.”

The first recording of “Sultans of Swing” was done for Dire Straits’ five-song demo tape, which they laid down at Pathway Studios. Thanks to a little help from BBC Radio London DJ Charlie Gillette, the song found its way into regular rotation, after which the band secured a record contract with Phonogram Records. After doing so, however, the label had Knopfler and company re-record the song under the production of Muff Winwood.

What’s interesting is that the song didn’t actually chart upon its initial release in the UK. Indeed, it wasn’t until the song entered the Billboard Hot 100 in the U.S., more than six months after the band’s self-titled debut album, was released, that it began get more airplay. In the end, the song hit #8 in the UK and #4 in the US and has since found its way into more than a few all-time-best lists, including Rolling Stone’s list of the Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time, Guitar World’s Greatest Guitar Solos of All Time, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll.


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