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When ‘Sultans Of Swing’ Wasn’t A Hit For Dire Straits

The song became an anthem of their early sound, but it had to work for it.

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Dire Straits Sultans of Swing

It’s so much a part of the fabric of rock history now that it’s strange to think that ‘Sultans Of Swing’ missed the charts altogether when it was first released by Dire Straits on 19 May 1978.

The Mark Knopfler composition was, however, still part of the upward curve for the band during that year. They’d been supported by BBC Radio London, notably on broadcaster and writer Charlie Gillett’s show for the station, and were rapidly gaining a reputation as one of the hottest live bands on the circuit — almost living out the life of the funky little band described in the song’s lyric.

Dire Straits Sultans of Swing single cover‘Sultans of Swing’ not only continues to be heard on radio, TV, in retail outlets and many other places to this day, but had an influence on Knopfler’s 2015 solo album Tracker, especially on the song ‘Beryl.’ “I think there was a definite nod to the early Straits with ‘Beryl,’” he says. “That was a deliberate thing, going back to a period because it seemed to suit the song. I took a sort of ‘Sultans of Swing’ approach to it for that reason, because it’s something you’d associate with a time.”

Knopfler also remembers the early days of sweat and toil when Dire Straits really were playing the role described in ‘Sultans Of Swing.’ “You’re just going from gig to gig hoping to keep it all together,” he says, “and hoping to get onto a tour, which we managed to do. You just take it on from there.”

In the month that the single was released in the UK (the first time), Straits toured with the Climax Blues Band, and did European shows opening for Styx. In June, they played their first headlining UK tour, but ‘Sultans’ didn’t become a hit until the new year of 1979, when the band made the US charts with their self-titled debut album and then the single, which climbed all the way to No. 4. Back in Britain, it reached No. 8, and they were well and truly on their way.

‘Sultans Of Swing’ is on the Dire Straits album, which can be bought here.

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61 Comments

61 Comments

  1. Sheila Anderson

    May 20, 2015 at 8:04 am

    Sultans of Swing on the live album Alchemy, remains my all time, ultimate, favourite rock song and I listen to Alchemy at least once a week since it was given to me by my husband as a Valentines gift in 1985. Mark Knopfler remains my favourite musicians and guitarist.

    • mike merle

      May 21, 2015 at 1:58 am

      agreed however there is another cool version with a sax duel-Live at Nimes_

    • Lionel

      May 30, 2015 at 3:57 am

      You need to hear the one from “One night in London”, also Live.

      • Katz

        November 14, 2015 at 1:09 am

        The London show was awesome…”Romeo and Juliet”…..you and me babe….how bout it…

    • Nicola

      December 12, 2015 at 11:02 pm

      So is for me…I agree complitly

    • Alex Lee

      February 23, 2018 at 3:35 pm

      True . In fact a daily routine to tune to this album. Always start with Carousel Waltz and tunnel of love . The best .

  2. David Douglas

    May 20, 2015 at 8:31 am

    I loved this song and Down to the Water Line when they first came out. I thought they were phenomenal. But…I never considered buying any of their music or following the band for several years. Why? I thought down deep that those songs were SO GOOD that it was rather equivalent to Bob Beamon’s record breaking long jump: he never came close to matching the feat again. I figured they could never top that.

    Maybe they couldn’t but to my regret it took me several years to catch up to what they’d done in the mean time. I could go on and on but I will say that Making Movies had the highest ratio of quality output to inferior output I’ve ever seen. If they’d left off Les Boys, they would have batted 1.000 in my book. And Brothers in Arms was very serviceable. But nothing matches their first two hits in my opinion.

    • Kenny

      May 20, 2015 at 11:32 am

      Your crazy. Mark has left the little boy band and become a man in the music world. Brother in Arms was serviceable? Everyone has different taste in music but yours sucks.

      • DB

        May 20, 2015 at 1:11 pm

        wow dude. Take a chill pill. There are many of us who love Knopfler’s output, but prefer the original Dire Straits lineup best. If anything “sucks” it’s your patronizing attitude.

  3. Dave

    May 20, 2015 at 9:22 am

    I was 13 when i first heard Sultans of Swing, i knew back then this was a great song, and i have had the chance to see Mark play it live. It’s amazing how a song like that can miss ,but hey it’s been a staple ever since, and sounds as great today as it did back then..Classic..

    • Jeff Hutchins

      May 20, 2015 at 6:48 pm

      Of the 25 or so recent comments on here, I agreed most strongly with yours. I loved “Sultans” at the time it was popular in the U.S. in ’79, but then I became a father to young girls and lost my attention to new music. In the ’80s, I discovered my second-favorite film of all time “Local Hero,” made even greater by its magical soundtrack courtesy of one Mark Knopfler. I did not immediately connect his name with Dire Straits, but as soon as I did, my interest in him grew greater. I began listening to all the early DS, and fell in love with “Brothers in Arms,” the greatest anti-war songwriting medley ever. Side 2 s practically a rock opera of epic proportions. Now in his solo years, he is delivering the most mature songwriting ever in the rock/folk genre. His lyrics are given such powerful interpretations by his instrumentals.

      Like you, “Local Hero” brings me to tears, but now so do so many haunting songs. He has yet to put out a disappointing album, and “Tracker” is a masterpiece. While it seems at first derivative of his earlier work, it is in fact a perfecting of his musical and lyrical message. No other artist picks such amazing stories for his songs, nor tells them with such spare poetry.

      • Barbara Saia

        May 17, 2019 at 1:08 pm

        I totally agree! He is a masterful poet with a never-ending repertoire that just keeps getting better and better…There’s no one like him, so delicate and talented on so many levels. Absolutely divine. Thank you Mark for all your productions. I’ll see you in August and perhaps September too. ♥️

  4. joanna smith tait

    May 20, 2015 at 10:51 am

    Mark Knopfler has terrific staying power. I remember dancing to Sultans at a house party in ’79 – first time I’d heard Dire Straits – I was blown away. I love Romeo and Juliet, and Local Hero/Wild Theme makes me teary. Still play them in my car.

  5. Bob.G

    May 20, 2015 at 11:16 am

    That riff! Undoable with a plectrum!

    • Guitarman

      May 22, 2015 at 5:52 pm

      Sultans was excellen,t fortunate to have seen him with dire straits and solo an inspiring guitarist sultans yep claw style of playing (banjo style) tended to just 3 fingers but awesome player for a modern equivalent listen to brad Paisley American Saturday night album he is absolutely amazing. Knopfler inspired me then and still does today pensa suhr guitar thank you mk!

    • Doug

      December 9, 2015 at 6:11 am

      Oh – I played it with a pick for years and years. It is VERY hard to do with a pick, and in my laziness I eventually forced myself to nail it with my fingers. If I can do it – ANYONE can. It took a year to master the whole song with my fingers and sing it too. MK is one amazing guitarist.

  6. Keerthan Kurien

    May 20, 2015 at 12:04 pm

    The Alchemy version of Sultans Of Swing is undoubtedly the best version.Towards the end of the song you literally blood rush to your head!

    • Katherine Royce

      May 20, 2015 at 4:07 pm

      Alchemy is one of my favorite all time albums. I also love to watch Mark sing Sultans on the DVD set. I also love Telegraph Road

  7. Bas S

    May 20, 2015 at 12:13 pm

    I agree with you all..

  8. leo chizer

    May 20, 2015 at 12:33 pm

    This artist is excellent.I have see him twice in my live.He have the really chemical sustance that leaves me relaxing all the time.I saw him in the mandala bay in las vegas and also in los angeles.

  9. Rob

    May 20, 2015 at 12:37 pm

    Alchemy is a great album, but there are better versions of Sultans. I’d recommend that anyone who likes the Alchemy version get hold of the Wembley Mandela gig version or a bootleg from the Brothers in Arms tour.

    • pete

      May 20, 2015 at 5:30 pm

      i agree seen knopfler 5 times the man is a genius

  10. Rod

    May 20, 2015 at 1:42 pm

    The best version of all time is on the ‘live at the BBC’ album along with the classic early stuff and otherwise unheard songs.

  11. Davor

    May 20, 2015 at 1:59 pm

    On single record in the left up corner, write “RB” means RADIO BEOGRAD ( Radio Belgrade Serbia ). I have same single record, my father bought it 37 years ago…

  12. Damodar prabhu

    May 20, 2015 at 2:01 pm

    Infact ‘ Sultans of swing ‘ has been my favourite ever since I got in touch with Rock music during college days way back in late 80’ s

  13. Kev

    May 20, 2015 at 2:14 pm

    Saw Mark at Sheffield Motorpoint Arena 3 Days ago. Sat 3 rows back centre stage, so close you could almost touch him. Always been a fan, always will be. I’ve still got the tee shirt from the 1985 Brothers in Arms Tour…it doesn’t fit me anymore…must have put a bit of weight on since then. My sixteen year old son was with me at Sheffield, I think he was the youngest there! He plays guitar and has been influenced a lot by Mark Knopfler.

  14. Dave

    May 20, 2015 at 3:13 pm

    Mark is simply my favourite music artist of all time. All of Dire Straits albums were awesome. Golden Heart was awesome. And other than his EmmyLou Harris get together he gets better with age. As he recently said himself, he is still learning. His Tracker album is awesome as well. I’ve seen him in Vancouver and in Calgary. The two most awesome concerts I’ve been to. My apologies for using the word awesome so much, but he is.

  15. Thomas

    May 20, 2015 at 3:56 pm

    If you can get a hold of the Live in Sydney from 1986 (the final BIA concert), everything is excellent, but Sultans is exceptional.

  16. denisealvescoser

    May 20, 2015 at 5:14 pm

    Quando conheci meu marido me apaixonei pela Banda Dire Straits.Nos separamos e continuo a curtir o Mark Knopfler na sua linda voz e musica,….abc e bjs.

  17. Jim Bennett

    May 20, 2015 at 9:20 pm

    I remember riding in the car with my dad when I was very young. For some reason I can still picture the cassette tape with the blue label on it. Sultans of Swing changed me, making me appreciate music at a fundamental level. I’m happy Mark Knopfler exists. I’ll be seeing him in Amsterdam in two weeks at the Ziggo Dome and then again at his show in Vancouver in September. That’ll mark my fourth Knopfler show. Even got to see Dire Straits’ final tour. Woohoo!

  18. Sam

    May 21, 2015 at 2:52 am

    Not entirely accurate I’m afraid. A gentleman from Phonogram Australia, Bob Aird, fell in love with the song on first hearing it and his enthusiasm spread through the company within hours. Radio 2JJ picked it up immediately (2 or 3 weeks before official release) and the swell began. I remember pumping all kinds of playlists and PR info through to the US to help get some traction there. So, for the record, Australia and, I think, the Netherlands, were first.

    • Paul Rodenhuis

      May 23, 2015 at 7:52 am

      You’re right! Double J picked it up in around May, ’78 and gave it a lot of airplay. I bought the album the day it was released in August. Dire Straits also (I think) set the record number of preformances at the Sydney Entertainment Centre, 17 I think. I queued all day for tickets to show #5.

  19. Ian Smith

    May 21, 2015 at 10:20 am

    I saw Dire Straits performing supporting Talking Heads at Southampton at a relatively small gig where I was able to stand directly in front of the singer/guitarist. I’d thought it was around the time this was first released so either my memory is playing tricks and it was later than that or the article has neglected to mention Talking Heads?

    It was a hell of a gig. I’d been learning guitar for two years. As I watched Knopfler play amazing guitar AND sing at the same time I thought “How the xxxx does he do that?” I pretty much gave up the guitar after that gig!

    I actually preferred Dire Straits to the main band (they were the main band because “Psycho Killer” had been a bigger hit I guess) and had heard their stuff through John Peel who championed so many of the bands of that era that are household names today but wouldn’t have been without his support.

  20. Erick Nova

    May 21, 2015 at 11:10 am

    Sultans of Swing had a great influence on my life. It gave me the right push to start my own musical (low profile) carreer. Thanks to MK and Dire Straits.

  21. Murray Dickson

    May 22, 2015 at 6:46 am

    why is “Sultans Of Swing” Not available via this Ap in Thailand?
    Very disappointing.

  22. Mauro

    May 22, 2015 at 3:23 pm

    I was on holiday in Mauritius Island coming from 7 years work in Zambia.
    At dinner near the pool of Hotel Casuarina, a local Band , would say very good, started playing a song new for me, I was fashinated, still I am.
    It was Sultans of swing

  23. john

    May 22, 2015 at 4:01 pm

    Sadly, I never got to see Dire Straits live but I bought most of their music. To me they are the all time greatest rock band and I too will regularly play Sultans of Swing along with their other classics like Brothers in arms and Lady writer.

  24. Bill

    May 22, 2015 at 5:02 pm

    Sultan’s of Swing..always an all time best, Mark Knopfler is an amazing guitarist..music come’s and goes and some of what’s out there today is lacking the heartbeat of rock..

  25. Milomir

    May 22, 2015 at 6:38 pm

    Sultan,s of Swing was no. 1 on Studio B.(Belgrade radio station-Serbia ) in august,,but first took 7 th place in may.22 nd.

  26. Ian Smout

    May 22, 2015 at 9:47 pm

    I was working as a lifeguard in Cornwall in June/July ’78 and I went to Plymouth for the day. I felt like buying a record so I walked into a music store. The guy was playing some record as store music. It sounded good. Eventually I asked who it was. It was an promotion copy of an album that a band promotor had dropped off because the guy in the store said the band was playing at the local town hall tonight. Tickets were a pound. I couldn’t go because I had to work that night (second job). I bought the promotion copy album (missing a sticker). Yes, it was Dire Straits. I still have, and play, that album regularly. I suppose it could be a collectors piece. I should have skipped work!!!!

  27. Jim Ramsey

    May 22, 2015 at 10:26 pm

    The first time I heard Sultans of Swing I thought it was one of the best things Bob Dylan had ever done : )

  28. philip cassidy

    May 23, 2015 at 7:12 pm

    look mark my good man the deal is red electric guitar strat? schecter? david rhythm / john bass / pick drums / get back to your roots you did a gig in dublin a few years ago the shit you were playing i was leaving halfway then you played telegraph and we stayed then i shouted play money for nothing i play guitar you jimi p jimi h eric slash bb you are in this league so get your finger out prove you can do it again cheers man

  29. Roslan

    May 27, 2015 at 3:02 pm

    Superb…all the Dire Straits songs are superb…’sultans of swing’ did introduced me to mark knofler and Dire Straits world.

  30. JimmyDunc

    May 30, 2015 at 11:59 am

    o yes….driving through Toronto in a huge Ford LTD with my 8 year old nephew ….rocking out to Sultans of Swing. Those were the days ….

  31. Michael Ler

    November 14, 2015 at 2:34 pm

    Heard down to the waterline at the Gunston 500 surf contest in Durban 1978. I’ve followed and worshipped their music forever. SOS through Europe the late 70s and 80s in a van. MK plays the guitar like no other. As he said in an interview, he’s a “lifer” the money is secondary. What a superb talented artis, most every song. 6 blade knife

  32. marjaana

    December 12, 2015 at 11:16 pm

    i have a grandson whose name is SAXON GUITAR GEORGE. i hope he turns out musical. 🙂

  33. Rod

    May 19, 2016 at 11:20 pm

    The best version ever is ‘Live at the BBC’.

  34. Mark Snelling

    May 20, 2016 at 5:22 am

    I remember going to see Chicago when they toured New Zealand in 1978. I got there very early and they were doing the final sound check. “Down to The Waterline” came on. We all just looked at each other. It was the anti-punk. By the time Sultans came on everybody in the stadium was sold. As a guitarist myself, I listened to the triplets at the end and thought “now that’s a guitar player…”

  35. Mudman2

    May 20, 2016 at 11:44 am

    I was lucky to see Dire Straits at Newcastle City Hall in 77. They played well but were very stiff, the songs were exactly like the the album, they appeared “wooden” both brothers were in the lineup

    Don’t get me wrong, the were good but not the free wheeling Prog Rock type of performance i was expecting.

    6 months later when I saw them they were a different band, relaxed and in charge of the stage with Mark improvising more and more.

    Saw the Newcastle and Philadelphia Tracker concerts, listens to more of the tour on USB. The Newcastle one was the best for me, but its our roots so maybe that had an influence.

    What a talent, all his life

  36. BobbyH

    May 20, 2016 at 6:10 pm

    Pardon me for saying so but I enjoy the DS tunes much more than MK’s solo efforts. The songwriting is much more mature in his solo career but he has traded the guitar music for his singing voice which was/is marginal, although appropriate to the music of his later years. I miss the guitar-based rock/jazz music to the ballads. Why is it that every rock star wants to be a balladeer and every balladeer wants to be a rock star? Grass is always greener, I guess.

  37. Claudi

    May 20, 2016 at 8:09 pm

    sultans from alchemy in my car,……. I must care not driving to fast and want to ride detours.

  38. Carsten Stig

    September 11, 2016 at 4:56 pm

    I heard Sultans of Swing in the summer of 1978. It was my first experience with Dire Straits, and I was hooked. I have all their CD’s and all the following solo CD’s from Mark. They had a great impact on my life and thought me to look positive on the world. By the way i named my first born son Mark.

  39. Andre Duran

    September 11, 2016 at 6:49 pm

    Sultans of Swing is one of those icons that never age and never got us tired of listening to it. In fact, I got it on every stereo I can, to listen to both versions (original and Alchemy) at home, office, car and even on my cell phone. Yup, I can honestly say there is no week I don’t hear to both versions less than five times or more (in a playlist of about a thousand songs).
    I know it’s risky to say that, in a world of great songwriters and performers, but in my humble opinion is the most perfect rock song ever !

  40. Jim

    December 18, 2016 at 10:29 pm

    I first heard SOS during spring break in my senior year of high school. Since that moment, it has been an anthem and one of my favorite songs. Many films are not appreciated when they first come out. I imagine it’s the same thing with songs.

  41. Markus

    April 3, 2017 at 9:27 pm

    The Straits received massive airplay on 2MMM FM and 2DAY FM in Sydney back in 1985/86. Bought “Brothers in Arms”, went to see one of the 20 or so shows at the old Entertainment Center. Watched the Radio/TV simulcast of the final show. Been hooked ever since! Sultans? An all-time classic!

  42. Duano

    May 19, 2017 at 6:29 pm

    Sultans is one of those iconic songs that you can remember exactly where you were and what you were doing the first time you heard it. I was working on my car in a friends garage the first time I heard “Stairway to Heaven”. I was pumping gas in Twenty-nine Palms, California the first time I heard Sultans of Swing… I stood there spellbound and listened to the whole song even though I had finished pumping…

  43. Andre Fernandez Agra

    May 20, 2017 at 6:33 am

    Sultans of Swing is the perfect form of Rock.

  44. Andy

    May 20, 2017 at 12:41 pm

    Its my Ring Tone – enough said !

  45. Top Cat

    May 20, 2017 at 7:22 pm

    I remember hearing SoS on the radio, probably, John Peel, and going into Windows music store in Newcastle to buy a copy. Windows was the big music store in Newcastle that Mark will have visited frequently. The lady at the counter looked at me blankly when I told her the name of the group and the song. She was persuaded to consult the catalogue of issued records. It looked like a massive telephone directory, no computer databases then, and triumphantly informed me that no such song or group existed. I went away empty handed, and the song disappeared from the airwaves – but not forever. A few months later it was back, I bought the single, along with a lot of other people, and DS were on the way. If I recall correctly, Brothers in Arms was issued just as cd’s came to market. I didn’t have a cd player, so I had to buy the cheaper vinyl. How times have changed, but the quality of the music endures. Absolutely iconic song, masterful guitar work, unforgettable.

  46. TONY

    May 22, 2017 at 4:48 am

    ON THE BROTHERS IN ARMS TOUR AT VARSITY ARENA IN TORONTO, THE OPENING ACT WAS STEVIE RAY VAUGHN AND DOUBLE TROUBLE. NO QUESTION THE YOUNG FELLA WAS A TRUE VIRTUOSO (AND IS SADLY MISSED)……BUT KNOPFLER SHOWED THAT THE SPACES ARE JUST AS IMPORTANT AS THE NOTES. WAS LUCKY TO SEE THE SHOW TWICE IN THE FOUR NIGHT RUN FROM FRONT ROW! KNOPFLER HAS THE FEEL AND TECHNIQUE. WOULD LOVE TO SEE A DIRE REUNION – THE FIRST THREE ALBUMS (MINUS LES BOYS) ARE TRUE CLASSICS!

  47. matt swing

    May 22, 2017 at 7:27 am

    Not got much to say about Dire Straits personally as I’ve just started collecting the back catalogue on vinyl from thrift stores. I was too young to appreciate them back in the day. however, loving everyone’s stories and memories of them, that to me is the beauty and power of music. It binds us all, like the Force!!

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