‘Sultans of Swing’ was both the first single from Dire Straits’ debut album and a revealing first-person account of the average working band’s hardscrabble, often thankless existence playing British pubs during the '70s. It’s only fitting, therefore, that Dire Straits leader Mark Knopfler was inspired to write the tune in a pub, pint in hand, whilst watching just one such band calling themselves – you guessed it – the Sultans of Swing.

As the song plainly states, there were no guarantees for the fledgling groups taking to stages on a nightly basis across London – nor for the patrons who could find themselves faced with either a hopeless case, or future stars. “A band is playing Dixie double four time” so you “step inside but don’t see too many faces,” since, after all, there’s too much "competition in other places.”

Knopfler could relate. After studying and working as a journalist for some time, the Scottish-born guitarist began playing with a succession of semi-professional bands in Leeds, and later London, where he also spent three years teaching at Loughton College.

Once again quoting the song, under these circumstances one would meet a vast array of diverse characters; for example, “Guitar George” who knew “all the chords” but played “strictly rhythm”; or Harry, with his “daytime job,” who didn’t even mind if he didn’t “make the scene,” but was content “saving it up for Friday night.”

Such were the tales common to innumerable long-forgotten bands, including the ones that informed Knopfler’s personal pub rock band experience (Silverheels, Brewers Droop or Cafe Racers ring a bell?) on the lengthy slog to forming Dire Straits in 1977 and recording the five-song demo that would eventually earn the band a record deal, largely thanks to ‘Sultans of Swing.’

Amazingly, the song was no immediate success, though, only becoming a bona fide hit some six months after release, when American radio warmed to it (eventually pushing it to No. 4 on the charts) and helped thaw initial resistance to it back home in the UK (where it crested at No. 8).

Ironically, this final, small delay to Knopfler and company's long-pending dreams of fame likely kept them grounded with the same humility reflected in the closing lines of their breakthrough hit: “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' / And he makes it fast with one more thing / 'We are the Sultans of Swing.'”

Alas, for the real Sultans, uncountable, interchangeable pub performances were all they’d know, while Dire Straits were among the few, the lucky, the talented bands to hit the big time.

Listen to 'Sultans of Swing' by Dire Straits

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