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Sunday, May 29, 2011

Dire Straits "Sultans Of Swing" Song Analysis

I was at a party at a swanky Beverly Hills establishment a few weeks ago when I got to talking to a group of Gen Xer's about music. Much to my surprise, one of them whipped out his iPhone and dialed up a song and announced, "This is the greatest song ever recorded." As it played, nearly all of his friends agreed, much to my surprise. While I was expecting to hear something more from their generation, the song that played was actually "Sultans Of Swing," the song that launched Dire Straits to international stardom. I figure that if they think so highly of the song, it's worth a song analysis.

The song is from the album Dire Straits, which was made for only about $20,000, mere chump change in the big budget days of 1978. Like all song analysis, we'll look at the song form, the arrangement, the sound, and the production.

The Song
"Sultans Of Swing" is about as straight ahead a song arrangement as you'll ever find. It fits almost perfectly in what you might call the "textbook" song form, which looks like this:

Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Solo, 1/2 Verse, Chorus, Solo

The Arrangement
There's nothing fancy about the arrangement at all. It's a rock band playing at its simplest and best.

  The Foundation: The bass and drums.

  The Pad: None

  The Rhythm: The rhythm guitar

  The Lead: Lead vocal and lead guitar

  The Fills: Lead guitar

The Sound
In 1979 analog recording might have been at it's peak and this recording certainly is a testament to that notion. Everything sounds completely real and unprocessed. The drums are dry and in your face without being too compressed, and the snare is very snappy (sounds like a lot of under-snare mic). The vocal and rhythm guitars have just a touch of reverb to give them some space but the lead guitar has a a lot of a slightly delayed verb that pushes it back in the mix, giving all the elements a nice front-to-back image.

The Production
Muff Winwood's (Steve Winwood's brother) production is sparse but effective. It's just the band playing with very limited sweetening, but the song is a perfect example of how that can be just as effective as a song that's heavily produced and layered. The rhythm guitars are doubled and split left and right and the lead guitar line in the chorus is doubled, but that's about it. What matters here is the performances, and the band just smokes, especially drummer Pick Withers and his great high-hat work. Of course, Mark Knopfler went on to become a guitar god as a result of this song as well.

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