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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"Sultans of Swing" is pure pub rock with a story of a jazz experience

Dire Straits don't directly echo the music implied by their story, but they embody it just enough to tell a convincing and memorable tale.

Usually, when there's a song that talks about a musical experience, that experience is referenced through the instrumental. Such a connection allows for a more comprehensive story to be told, and it grounds the track in a sense of reality.

However, such a gesture — perhaps to readers' surprise — is not universal, nor is it required for a song centered around such references to be well-regarded. Exhibit A for this lack of connection is Dire Straits' enduring 1978 release "Sultans of Swing." Frontman / lead guitarist / producer Mark Knopfler opted not to enter the world of swing and jazz music through his guitar playing, instead solidly staying in the world of pub rock. While this could make for a disconnect from the listener's perspective, the fast lyrical pace combined with the guitar's catchy responses to the vocal phrasings put the listener's focus on the present moment within the song, which (at least in my listening experience) elevates his 1961 Fender Stratocaster guitar's role above that of the lyrics. It's an unusual relationship for a popular track to have, but there's no doubt it works given the praise the band and the song have received.

Of course, Knopfler's vocals do still have a marked impact, but for me that impact comes through his phrasing more so than through the lyrics themselves. His Lou Reed-esque conversational delivery ebbs and flows in a manner through which the listener can track the peaks and valleys of his narrative even without paying much attention to the tale he's actually telling. As he half-sings, half-speaks his way through setting the scene of a low-attended pub performance from the titular Dixieland band, Knopfler gives an amiability and approachability to his cast of characters. Like his guitar playing in the verse, each of the band members does their job, fitting their function.

Looking more intently at his lyrics than I ever have before, I find it interesting that he focuses on the horns in both the second and fifth verses, yet we don't hear any in Dire Straits' song. Perhaps he's echoing his own lyrical sentiments that trumpets "ain't what they call rock and roll," an ironic statement considering horns' early role in the genre. If anything, maybe he later mimics the trumpets through his own guitar solo, one of the most distinctive in all of rock. It would be a fitting way to close a book on a song that praises the horns the way it does, especially when "guitar George" is commended for "know[ing] all the chords" rather than his solo ability. Knopfler has his fair share of rhythmic and chordal moments in the verses and breaks, but in the solo he's purely monophonic like a trumpet is, and that distinction speaks for itself.

Ultimately, Mark Knopfler and the rest of Dire Straits do echo the jazz music of their story just enough to make "Sultans of Swing" really come together. It's unequivocally a pub rock song, but those stylings also echo part of their story through its bar setting. They certainly didn't take the traditional route to telling a jazz-filled tale, but in sticking to their style and shining within it, they created a masterpiece of their genre.


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