Wednesday, January 20, 2010

January 20: Dire Straits, "Sultans Of Swing"

Artist: Dire Straits
Song: "Sultans Of Swing"
Album: single/Dire Straits
Year: 1978

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab) -ORIGINAL SINGLE VERSION- (taken from my vinyl, sorry for the few "pops")


There are few traditions in rock music that are as long standing and time honored as that of the so called "bar band." An overwhelming majority of bands spend months to years playing small bars and clubs across the globe in hopes of gaining an audience and reaching international fame. While nearly all of these acts fail at this mission, there are of course a handful that do break through; and yet there is also a group of small bands that are more than content to stay in the smaller venues. In many cases, these bands that enjoy the intimacy of a smaller setting represent everything that is pure about music, and some of these groups stand as the most talented on the planet. Though they are often ignored, they were perhaps no better celebrated than in the sound and style of the first single from Dire Straits, the legendary song, "Sultans Of Swing." While many are very familiar with the second recording of this song (second like above), there are very few that know it is not the original, let alone have heard the first recording of the song (first link above). Truth be told, "Sultans Of Swing" was originally recorded at Pathway Studios in 1978 as part of Dire Straits' now famous five-song demo. It was after hearing this version of "Sultans Of Swing" that executives at Phonogram Records gave the group a deal, and the song was re-recorded for their self-titled debut record. Regardless of which version one listens to, the spirit of the song, as well as the unquestionably high level of talent within the band shines through brightly, and it is much the reason that both Dire Straits and "Sultans Of Swing" remain true icons in music history.

There are a number of differences between the two versions of this song, the most obvious being the far higher overall recording quality of the second version. Obviously due to the fact that they were in a more professional studio, there is a certain level of raw, intimate music power that remains in the first version. Also, the "single" version of the song has a slightly different lyrical arrangement, and the music has small distinctions as well. Regardless of which version you listen to, perhaps the most important similarity is the presence of what is without question one of the finest and most iconic guitar riffs in music history. While many guitarists take a few albums to establish themselves as guitar icons, Mark Knopfler did so instantly, and both the riff and solos on "Sultans Of Swing" remain some of the finest work of his career. Without question one of the most highly respected guitarists in history, Knopfler is absolutely on fire during this song, as his precision and musical creativity here remain largely unparalleled to this day. The way he is able to work with and around rhythm guitarist (and brother) David Knopfler is fantastic, and on the original single, Mark also picks up a few rhythm parts. The smooth, almost jazzy mood of the song is deployed and controlled by the equally brilliant rhythm section of bassist John Illsey and drummer David "Pick" Withers. The fact that the group was able to so perfectly balance so many styles together simultaneously is certainly one of the key reasons they were signed to a record deal, and the truth is, there has never been another band quite like Dire Straits.

Though it is almost impossible to talk about Mark Knopfler and speak of anything BUT his guitar playing skill, one cannot overlook the fact that he is also one of the most uniquely talented vocalists in music history. Possessing what is unquestionably one of the most instantly recognizable voices in music history, Knopfler's speak-singing approach gives the songs of Dire Straits a wonderfully unique feel, and on "Sultans Of Swing," it is no different. In many ways, it is Knopfler's voice that gives "Sultans Of Swing" its "cool" feel, and one can easily tell that there is at least some autobiographical aspect of the song. The lyric of "Sultans Of Swing" is perhaps the finest tribute to an ignored, almost forgotten bar/pub band, yet Knopfler makes it clear that though they play in a bar, they are without question a musical force with which to be reckoned. Containing some of the most memorable lyrics in music history, upon the release of the "second" recording, BBC Radio refused to play the song due to its "high lyrical content," but the single was able to breakthrough on both sides of the Atlantic, proving the amazing power of the sound of Dire Straits. Perhaps the most notable lyrical difference between the two recordings (aside from the rhythm of the words) is the simple addition of the phrase "thank you" during the songs' final verse, and this is what makes the original recording detectable from any other version. With nearly every line of the song now holding an almost iconic status, Mark Knopfler sings flawlessly on the song, and the mood he is able to vocally create helps to make "Sultans Of Swing" one of the greatest songs ever written.

When it comes to a wonderfully vivid picture of a truly special and powerful band, who are more than content to spend their musical lives in their local pub, there is simply nothing that compares to the sound and majesty of Dire Straits' legendary song, "Sultans Of Swing." With his amazing lyrics and flawless vocal delivery, Mark Knopfler is able to bring the listener inside of the club, and it remains one of the most welcoming, yet awe-inspiring songs ever written. Perfectly summing up the mood of the band in question, Knopfler sings, "And Harry doesn't mind if he doesn't make the scene...he's got a daytime job, he's doin' alright..." This attitude of "yeah, we're good, but it's just a thing we do on the side" is nothing short of endearing, and stands in stark contrast to the "fame at any cost" ideal that permeates a majority of the music industry to this day. Over the decades, the song has been covered countless times, with one of the finest coming during live performances of Trey Anastasio's large ensembles (the irony here being his horn section playing the iconic riff). However, while many have covered the song, none even come close to equaling the simple, yet phenomenal sound and mood of the original, and it makes it less of a surprise that it was largely due to this song that the group gained a recording contract. From the fantastic lyrics to the absolutely mind-blowing musical arrangements, few songs come close to the perfection and power of the first single from Dire Straits, the truly unrivaled, "Sultans Of Swing."


mike lariccia said...

Great piece on one of my very favorite songs ever and one I love to try to play. Those guitar licks are so tasteful and well crafted and executed. If you want to see how influential and loved that song is , search on YouTube on the title and the word guitar and see scores and scores of folks from all over the world trying to play it - some great some not so great , but all of them loving the song and the instrument. Thanks Joel.

Matt's Dad (Thanks for sending the link Matt!)

Mirshaan said...

Thank you for summarizing the reason this song stands as my favorite song of all time. I try to explain it to people and they just don't get it. It's subdued musical mastery at its best.... I love this song more than any other... and having spent years in bands playing in pubs and small clubs, this song brilliantly encapsulates the struggles, the love of music, and the special world that small-time bands exist in...

Thank you again for the brilliant summary of what makes my favorite song so very special.