"The BBC said, We don’t want to play this song because there are too many words in it": Why Dire Straits had to break America before they were embraced in England

Dire Straits
(Image credit: Phil Dent/Redferns)

Dire Straits' debut single Sultans of Swing is now a staple of classic rock radio playlists, but as bassist John Illsley recalls, the biggest British band of the 1980s had to make waves in America before they were accepted in their homeland. 

Written in 1977 by vocalist/guitarist Mark Knopfler after witnessing a jazz band playing to a wholly disinterested audience in a south London bar, Sultans of Swing was released in the UK on May 19, 1978, and released in the US in January 1979, but it wasn't until the record started picking up radio airplay in the US that the song was re-issued and re-promoted in Britain and finally made it on to BBC radio playlists. In fact, it didn't break into the UK Top 40 until March 17, 1979, 10 months after its original release.

"The song is a story about a little rock band in a club probably just playing for beer," John Illsley tells Vulture. "We knew that feeling, didn’t we?"

"The song broke in America first rather than in England," he explains. "It didn’t get on the radio for one simple reason: The BBC, which was in charge of pretty much everything in the U.K. with music, said, 'We don’t want to play this song because there are too many words in it. Also, it’s quite long. Why is it six minutes?' That didn’t seem to matter in America and it was embraced there."

Despite the staggered release dates on each side of the Atlantic, Sultans of Swing actually peaked on the national singles charts in both the UK and US in the exact same week, April 7, 1979: that week it entered the UK Top 10 at number 8, and stayed there the following week, while in the US it reached number 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

"There was a level of excitement amongst us that things were starting to happen," Illsley recalls to Vulture. The problem is that when you get a wave, you almost don’t have time to think about it. Sultans of Swing was riding high everywhere. We didn’t have time to reflect about its significance, in a way, because the second album was already on the go."

"It had a huge impact," the bassist told Classic Rock last year. "These are the catalysts that move you onward through life. People have said we were lucky, but I say, Well, what does luck mean? The fact of the matter is that it was a bloody good song, the band was pretty damn good and we worked bloody hard."

Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Born in the North of Ireland, Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.