Sultans of Swing: Dire Straits, Blackjack, and System of a Down

Hello there! In this week’s blog we consider the song Sultans of Swing. This is a wonderfully creative rock song performed by the group Dire Straits and written by their lead guitarist Mark Knopfler. We will start with the original version, then discuss covers of that song by the groups Blackjack and System of a Down.

Dire Straits and Sultans of Swing:

I was driving along a highway in 1979, listening to rock music on the radio. Suddenly I heard a new song, one that I did not recognize. The singer sounded vaguely like Bob Dylan – or could it be Lou Reed? But what really caught my attention was the electric guitar – it was like nothing I had heard before.

The song had a very distinctive beat and chord structure, but so did many classic rock songs. This one was truly creative and novel. Mixed into the guitar licks were some awesome trills and arpeggios, combined with soaring high notes. Although a rock song, the guitar solos also beautifully incorporated classical and jazz elements.

The clarity of the sound was quite exceptional.  As described by Wikipedia,
Knopfler used the guitar technique of finger picking on the recording. The distinctive “clean” tone was created by jamming Knopler’s Fender Stratocaster into the middle bridge pickup position.

I was so taken by the song that I pulled over to the side of the road to hear all 5 minutes and 50 seconds of the tune, and discover the name of this band. This was my first introduction to the band Dire Straits, a quartet that emerged from Newcastle, England to become one of the great rock groups of that period.

Below is the lineup of Dire Straits circa 1981. From L: Alan Clark, John Illsey, Mark Knopfler, Terry Williams, and Hal Lindes.

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The song Sultans of Swing describes the experiences of a grandiose but relatively unsuccessful jazz combo in London.

A band is blowing Dixie double four time
You feel alright when you hear that music ring

Well, now you step inside but you don’t see too many faces
Coming in out of rain to hear the jazz go down
Competition in other places
Oh, but the horns, they’re blowing that sound

… We are the Sultans
We are the Sultans of Swing.

Apparently the song was inspired by Knopfler’s first-hand experience, seeing a band playing in a nearly-deserted pub in Deptford. Following a rather grubby performance, the band haughtily announced their name: “We are the Sultans of Swing.”

So here is a live performance by Dire Straits of Sultans of Swing. This comes from the group’s double album Alchemy: Dire Straits Live, which emerged from two performances at London’s Hammersmith Odeon theater in July 1983

Here, Mark Knopfler extends the original record to nearly double its original length. The sounds Knopfler extracts from his 1961 Fender Stratocaster guitar are just stunning – and by the way, I am told that there is no overdubbing on the album! This is exactly the way the audience experienced it.

Here, Mark Knopfler is joined by John Illsey on bass, Terry Williams on drums, Hal Lindes on guitar, and Alan Clark on keyboards. Mel Collins also contributes on saxophone.

To give you some idea of how amazing this live performance is, this video has been viewed over 58 million times! After watching this video, one has to ask – how can it be that Dire Straits has not yet been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?

It’s hard for me to imagine why they are not in the Hall. Dire Straits’ music was truly original, the group sold over 100 million records, they were not one-hit wonders (like, for example, Hall of Fame inductee Percy Sledge, who produced When a Man Loves a Woman and essentially nothing else), and their work has proved durable.  Surely Dire Straits was as creative and influential as HOF inductees such as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, or John Mellencamp.

Following their initial break-out in 1979, Dire Straits continued to be successful until 1998. The group’s biggest album was the 1985 release Brothers in Arms, which sold over 10 million records and contained a number of pop hit records, particularly Money for Nothing. The album won the group two Grammy Awards and is frequently included in “all-time greatest album” lists.

However, in fall 1998 Mark Knopfler announced that the group was disbanding so that he could devote full time to his solo career. The band re-united in 1991, issued a couple more albums and went on a couple years of touring. However, those results were somewhat disappointing.

The group’s final albums did not receive the same critical acclaim as their former work. And the touring must have been quite grueling. This was summarized by Bill Flanigan:
“The subsequent world tour lasted nearly two years, made mountains of money and drove Dire Straits into the ground. When the tour was over, both Knopfler’s marriage and his band were gone”.

By 1995, Dire Straits was disbanded for good. Mark Knopfler continues to tour occasionally, but he has stated that he has no interest in re-forming the band, and apparently he is much more interested in his newer music than in playing the old favorites.

Knopfler is a terrific, unique guitarist. I have seen him once with Dire Straits (Zurich, 1983) and later on in his solo career. In addition to his wonderful work on his Fender Stratocaster guitar, Knopfler also produces memorable sounds on a National Steel guitar.  Back in the 80s he was a frequent collaborator with Eric Clapton at various benefit concerts. Long may you run, Mark.

Blackjack and Sultans of Swing:

Blackjack were an American rock quartet. They were relatively unsuccessful during the two years of their existence. The group was formed when lead singer Michael Bolotin and guitarist Bruce Kulick teamed up with drummer Sandy Gennaro and bassist Jimmy Haslip.

In 1978, Bruce Kulick finished up touring with Meat Loaf and then teamed up with Michael Bolotin, with whom he had performed at a show in Connecticut. After adding Gennaro and Haslip to complete the quartet and adding manager Steve Weiss, the group negotiated a record contract with Polydor Records.

Initially, the prospects for Blackjack looked pretty good. Their debut eponymous album was overseen by legendary producer Tom Dowd in Miami. The group toured with Peter Frampton and the Marshall Tucker Band, both big draws at that period. The band appeared poised to make a big splash.

However, sales of the album failed to live up to expectations, as the record stalled at 162 on the Billboard album charts, and their biggest single failed to dent the Top 50 list.

Blackjack managed to record one more album.  But the relative lack of success of their first record was a negative sign, and new management at Polydor were not optimistic about the group’s success. Their album was released with essentially no advance publicity, and no tour accompanied the second album.

At this point, the band members felt that they had better chances going it on their own.  By the end of 1980 they broke up and went their separate ways.

So, why do we bother with a group that lasted for such a short period of time, and left such an impermanent mark on the field? Well, one reason is that they recorded a cover of the Dire Straits hit Sultans of Swing.

You have to hand it to Blackjack – this song was so unique, featured such exquisite technique, and was so identified with Mark Knopfler that it took guts for Blackjack’s guitarist Bruce Kulick to cover it. Even more, it took chutzpah to attempt it live.

Here is the audio of Blackjack’s live cover of Sultans of Swing, featuring guitarist Bruce Kulick and lead singer Michael Bolotin.

spotify:track:6DVKkfzGLM213ZWsjs7uDH

I have to say this is not bad. Kulick does a creditable job on guitar here, and Michael Bolotin’s hard-rock vocals are just fine for this song. However, any cover suffers by comparison with Mark Knopfler’s absolutely stunning guitar work.

There is a second reason why Blackjack is an interesting band, and that is the later career of its lead singer Michael Bolotin. After leaving Blackjack, Bolotin made two amazing career moves. In 1983 he auditioned as Ozzy Osbourne’s replacement in the heavy-metal band Black Sabbath.

When he failed to land this gig, he decided to switch to easy-listening pop songs, and he also changed his name. And then – Shazam! As adult contemporary crooner Michael Bolton, his career took off like a rocket. He has since released 17 albums and 35 single records. Of those, nine hit #1 on either the Billboard Top 100 or Adult Contemporary Tracks charts.

Below is a 1990 photo of Michael Bolotin (now Michael Bolton), in his later incarnation as a soft-pop mega-star.

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Between 1985 and 2000, Bolton basically went from one success to another. Best-selling records, hit compilation albums, Christmas albums, duets with the hottest singers all followed. For example, Bolton recorded duets with artists as diverse as Patti LaBelle, Céline Dion, Plácido Domingo, Wynonna Judd, and BB King.

Of course, with all that exposure came much criticism for his soft-pop format. Perhaps the most memorable was when a character in the cult classic movie Office Space was a computer nerd with the name Michael Bolton. This character hated his singer namesake, loudly proclaiming “Michael Bolton sucks!”

Apparently the real Michael Bolton took that abuse with good humor. Just this year, he appeared on the TV program Funny or Die re-creating the role of his namesake Office Space character. Bolton’s performance is actually quite humorous – it’s great for him to be able to take this criticism in stride. You can find the link to that sequence here.

System of a Down and Sultans of Swing:

System of a Down, sometimes shortened to S.O.A.D., is an Armenian-American heavy-metal quartet, formed in California in 1994.

Below, the photogenic Armenian-American heavy metal band System of a Down, taken in Sept. 1998. From L: drummer John Dolmayan, lead guitarist Daron Malakian, bassist Slavo Odadjian and lead vocalist Serj Tankian.

Embed from Getty Images

The band’s name was inspired by a poem written by their guitarist Daron Malakian called “Victims of a Down.” The group has apparently been very successful. They have sold more than 40 million records worldwide, their song B.Y.O.B. won a Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance in 2006, and their records frequently reached the top of the Billboard charts in their specialty.

The group also tours with the biggest draws in heavy metal, including Slayer and Metallica. They were also headliners in Ozzfest in 1998. To give you some indicators of their success, S.O.A.D. was featured on the 1998 South Park album Chef Aid. In addition, in 2006 the USC Trojans marching band performed a medley of their songs at halftime during a football game. Finally, one of their songs appeared on the 2001 Clear Channel memorandum listing songs with “questionable lyrics,” that was circulated immediately following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

This particular genre of music is not exactly my style, so I know very little about the band. You may ask, “What exactly is the type of music played by System of a Down?” The Wikipedia article on the group discusses this. It states:
System of a Down’s music has variously been termed alternative metal, alternative rock, progressive metal, new prog, art rock, experimental metal, experimental rock, hard rock, heavy metal, nu metal and thrash metal.
Well, I hope that clears up this question for you!

S.O.A.D. frequently include a cover of Dire Straits’ Sultans of Swing in their concerts. However, instead of covering the entire song, System of a Down instead plays just under two minutes’ worth of the song. When they reach the chorus, they substitute “System of a Down” for “Sultans of Swing.”

So here is a live performance by System of a Down of their version of Sultans of Swing. This took place at the 2005 event No Kroqs Almost Acoustic Xmas.  After two minutes of their cover of the Dire Straits song, there is a segue into the group’s more recognizable head-banging music.

One of the hallmarks of the music by System of a Down is their focus on political events. Being Armenian-Americans, one of their frequent topics is the Armenian genocide at the hands of the Ottoman empire during the period 1915-1917. Lead vocalist Serj Tankian’s grandfather was a survivor of that massacre.

However, the group has also been very critical of American militarism as well. Their song B.Y.O.B. questions the extent of military recruiting in this country, and the group was also outspokenly critical of the Bush-Cheney invasion of Iraq in 2003.

S.O.A.D. went on hiatus in 2006 while their members pursued individual projects. However, they then re-united in 2010 and have performed various concerts since that time. Their latest project was a tour to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide; this included the group’s first concert in Armenia in 2015.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Sultans of Swing
Wikipedia, Dire Straits
Wikipedia, Mark Knopfler
Wikipedia, Blackjack (band)
Wikipedia, Michael Bolton
Wikipedia, Office Space
Wikipedia, System of a Down
Michael Bolton pokes fun in hilarious Office Space parody.

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. He and his wife share their college-town life with two delightful cats, Lewis and Clark. His hobbies include tennis and ornithology, and he is a life-long fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
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One Response to Sultans of Swing: Dire Straits, Blackjack, and System of a Down

  1. Pingback: Walk of Life: Dire Straits; Shooter Jennings; Brad Paisley | Tim's Cover Story

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