Notes On Song: Dire Straits - "Sultans of Swing"

You get a shiver in the dark, it’s-a raining in the park but meantime—

That is to say, it’s cold. It’s cold out there.

And I’m not just talking about the weather. I’m talking about the stiffened, lacquered aloofness of the corporate-industrial complex, studding the cramped byways with digitally toothed machines and dimly lit façades. If they could, those neutered androids would storm the warm interiors of the bars and restaurants surrounding them. They’d rumble in, break the doors off the hinges, crash into the foot-rails, dislodge the bolts keeping the stools to the floor, and try to pick up girls with dirty jokes with mangled punchlines. But they can’t do any of that because they’re stupid machines.

Also there’s rain, so they’re wet too. Cold steely wet dumbfucks.

South of the river you stop and you hold everything. A band is blowing Dixie, double four time. You feel alright when you hear the music ring.

“The river” is the Thames, which begins about 100 miles west of London, not far from a children’s fun center called “Magicland.” The River Thames starts as a trickle, barely a rivulet, but then gathers momentum as it bisects southern England in drunken turns that make no gravitational sense. Two hundred and fifteen miles later, after it’s ripped through Reading and London and spit up on Dartford, it grows wider and wider until it unceremoniously mingles with the anonymous North Sea near a village thoughtfully named Southend-on-Sea. So you’re south of that.

You stop because you hear a Dixieland band in full effect. Dixieland was the original jazz music. They also call it “traditional jazz.” You’re stopping because of the anachronism of hearing turn-of-the-century brass music in the middle of what was the beginning of the tech era. Sure, it wasn’t all the way there yet—people still had rotary phones and coat hangers coming out of their TVs, but neo-technological efforts were underway even in the late ‘70s.

It’s also arresting because you’re hearing specifically American music, which was created a scant 140 years after that cranky colony yanked itself away from the mother country, where you are now.

The band is playing extra-fast. Dixieland songs span the whole range of tempo, but some of them sound better fast. “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans,” “Rampart Street Parade,” “The Sheik of Araby,” a few others. I’ll bet the band's playing “Sweet Georgia Brown.” No Dixieland unit is complete without it. If they’re not playing “SGB” they’re probably saving it for the encore.

You’re feeling good about this. This is all right. Beats beans from a tin and a Benny Hill rerun at any rate.

Well now you step inside but you don't see too many faces. Coming in out of the rain they hear the jazz go down. Competition in other places, uh but the horns they blowin' that sound. Way on down south, way on down south London town.

You’re not in the most happening hotspot south of the Thames. Considering it’s 1978, that’s probably a discotheque. And it’s probably playing disco music, the rote-spewed child of a German circuit board and herpes (that nonetheless produced some nice songs). People used to gather in discotheques and move to this music. Their movements were fluid and responsive to the particular ergonomics of sexuality. Sometimes they pointed to the sky too, but that always struck me as either an ironic or desperate move. Don’t point to the heavens unless you’ve got a more specific road map to go with it.

So that’s where everyone else is. But you and a few others are here for the jazz thing. The horns that are squawking like geese over the subterranean outlets of the River Thames. So sod the discotheques, you know? You can’t risk the bacterial consequences. 

Check out Guitar George. He knows all the chords. Mind he's strictly rhythm; he doesn't want to make it cry or sing. They said an old guitar is all he can afford when he gets up under the lights to play his thing.

Somewhere we must have switched from Dixieland to some other type of music, because I don’t think there’s much guitar-wailing in Dixieland. And you don’t need too many chords to play Dixieland, so if George knows “all the chords” then it would be something of a waste for him to do time within Dixieland constraints. He’s probably wandered into the more refined jazz guitar of Charlie Christian or Django Reinhardt. He could use any chords he wants in that get-up. Unless, as the lyric implies, he’s content just to shove along the beat in a Dixieland band. Some guitarists are like that, especially if they can’t spend money on new guitars or the omnipresent wah-wah pedal. It’s not thrift so much as it is the need for the warm embrace of a tourist.

And Harry doesn't mind if he doesn't make the scene. He's got a daytime job, he's doing alright. He can play the honky tonk like anything—savin' it up for Friday night.

Harry—Lord, don’t get me started on Harry. He’s fine. Harry’s just fine. He has no need for the klieg-lights of sector-wide fame. He’s got this modesty thing down pat. Harry’s humility is his steadiest weapon. He’s actually aggressive about his humility. That recessive frame, his bottomless well of understatement, his insistence on pilsner when the civilized world has agreed on IPA. Harry don’t give a fuck. He’s the steadiest bank teller in London. He counts the bills with the appropriate dispassion. He thanks you for your patronage with a glib smile. Harry’s streamlined efficiency is awesome. Nothing shakes him. His path to ritualized noninterference is straight and unobstructed.

I kind of can’t stand Harry, to be honest. I think he’s one prissy smirk away from tyranny, the spindly bastard. But screw it, he can play—whatever instrument he plays, I’m not sure what it is, piano?—like nobody’s business. Although I’m not sure he wouldn’t be just as happy going to Renaissance Faires on the weekend. 

But that’s Harry.

What was I thinking? I can’t hate Harry. Nobody hates Harry.

With the Sultans—we're the Sultans of Swing.

Sultans are sovereign kings of Arabic territories, primarily Muslim states. In the 20th century, pop culture of the Western World had a tricky perspective of Eastern cultures, specifically Arabian and East Asian. (Well, who’m I kidding, we still do.) The sheik became a sort of romantic icon, what with Rudolph Valentino and songs like the aforementioned “Sheik of Araby.” (“I'm the Sheik of Araby/Your love belongs to me/At night when you're asleep/Into your tent I'll creep/The stars that shine above/Will light our way to love/You'll rule this land with me.”) Tin Pan Alley and crust-level Hollywood could never resist the lucre of caricature.

But this band does not appear to intend abasement with their name. They wish to convey that they’re simply very good at swing music, and “Prime Ministers of Swing” is a mite too syllabic.

Then a crowd-a young boys they're a-foolin' around in the corner, drunk and dressed in their best brown baggies and their platform soles.

Call them “the anti-Harrys.” Or as we call them in the Troubled Teens, “A-1 douchebags.” They wear baggy trousers (later memorialized in the Madness song “Baggy Trousers”) and clunky footwear they absconded with after Marc Bolan hurriedly left them behind after a raid. They drink, they fight, they caress things they’re not supposed to, they bluster, they’ve finally defeated acne, they’re young, they don’t have to worry about finding a podiatrist yet. But they will if they keep wearing Marc Bolan’s shoes. Terrible arch support.

They don't give a damn about any trumpet-playin’ band. It ain't what they call rock and roll.

I wonder, though, what the anti-Harry’s do consider “rock and roll.” This being 1978, “rock and roll” could have been anything. We were lax with our boundaries back then. “Rock and roll” could have meant disco to these spurts. But they’re not at the discotheque, are they? They’re in this pub. So who knows what they consider “rock and roll”?

Probably the Stones. I’ll accept the Stones.

Then the Sultans—yeah, the Sultans they play Creole.

The point is that playing in a cover band is a thankless task. The money’s fine, I’m sure. The fellowship is important, though likely not acknowledged between them. The Sultans don’t struggle to make themselves anything more than anthropological curios in a rapidly advancing society, because people will pay for the chance to be comforted, to have that comfort melt into the background, to have that comfort become an only incrementally livelier accessory. The personalities of the band level out over time. They revere the music they play and its Louisianan source, even if it’s not ever a topic of discussion among them. They have to do it. They expect light applause and a drink ticket. They do not expect acclaim.

That, I suppose, is why Mark Knopfler wrote about them. A pretty nice gesture.

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—

The time bell is for last call. The microphone is for singing or announcements. In this case it’s an announcement for everyone to go home. They can’t stay in the pub. Sure, it’s comfortable, but they can’t stay there. Whatever moments and sentiments they have negotiated between themselves in the pub atmosphere must now be transferred to another location, most likely a private residence. And that’s risky. The pub ambience is a big part of their most recent comfort. It may have coaxed them into sharing intimate details they wouldn’t have shared someplace else, say a cafeteria or a dog kennel. But now they have to transmute themselves and their comfort through cold and rain, and either agree to continue pursuing that comfort in each other’s company, or part ways and return to the safe but cheerless withdrawal of their separate residences.

That’s what the man is saying to them through the microphone.

“We are the Sultans—We are the Sultans of Swing.”

That they are. But keep an eye on Harry.


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