Number 28 in 1978’s Festive Fifty exposes the true underbelly of the British listening public, but at the same time confirms their good taste, to these ears at any rate. Dire Straits have achieved a kind of notoriety in Peel fanatic circles as one of a select group of people that were never offered a Peel Session: apparently, Charlie Gillett discovered them. That, of course, doesn’t mean to say they weren’t any good. John was simply a man who knew what he liked and stuck to his guns, and in any case Margrave Of The Marshes reveals that he had a sneaking liking for this song and knew all the words.
The song is a paean to a jazz club like a thousand others, but celebrates the very non-celebratory qualities that make it special. All the detail’s there: “a crowd of young boys they’re fooling around in the corner/Drunk and dressed in their best brown baggies and their platform soles”, Harry who is only doing this work on the side, George who can’t afford a spanking new guitar….and all this is taking place in London, not Chicago, to an infectious beat and inspired drumming from Pick Withers.
It was released as a single on Vertigo, and took its time to hit the charts, but when it did…and you doubtless know the rest. For me, their summa cum laude was the peerless Making Movies, which became the soundtrack to a very boring job in the Civil Service, but I also bought Sultans when it first came out, loved it to death, and of course it disappeared in the great vinyl purge of the mid 80s (if anybody has an mp3 of that single version, as featured in the video above, faster and punchier than the more showy LP version which JP played, I’ll laud you to the skies if you let me have a copy). It seems to draw a line between what the Peel Show had been and what it then became. The band themselves ploughed a similar furrow for many years, with Mark Knopfler (not, I think, the guitar genius that everybody makes him out to be, but sounding better and more alert here than he did subsequently) coining it from soundtracks and the like, but it was clear that they had gone in a direction which was at a sharp tangent to the one John was travelling. And that is why they made it to the BBC, but not for our hero.
Dire Straits, Sultans Of Swing