My family and friends often remark that my musical tastes don’t vary much. I’ve been told that my preferences fossilised during the eighties, which makes sense: I arrived on Earth a scant six months before that decade dawned.
One band, one artist, and one song in particular has accompanied me through most of my thirty-five years to date. On any given week, I listen to it dozens of times. In my lifetime (so far), I’ve certainly heard it more than fifty thousand times, and that’s a conservative estimate.
It’s a dull, overcast evening in September, 1977, but it hasn’t started to rain yet.
The street is fairly quiet because it’s nearly 10PM on a Wednesday, and most people are at home in front of the TV, thinking about going to bed.
This area of London is called Deptford, and the pub is called The Admiral’s Hat. It needs a lot more than a new coat of paint, but it’ll be closed four years from now and eventually turned into an upmarket deli and coffee shop.
Tonight, though, it’s still open.
The song was released the year before I was born. I don’t remember exactly what age I was when I first consciously heard it and took notice of it, but I do remember the event itself.
My father was going through a Dire Straits phase, as was the British public. He had various cassettes that he listened to in the car on his way to and from work. He sold cars, and would rarely be driving the same vehicle for long, so his tapes always came with him.
He had a room at the front of the house that was nominally a fancy lounge for receiving guests, but was really his music room. Beige leather wrap-around sofa and matching armchair, an oak chessboard with oversized ebony and ivory pieces, crystal glasses and decanters of whisky, and his gleaming hi-fi separates system: twin decks, motorised graphic equaliser, amplifier, and an auto-cueing turntable, all hooked up to Tannoy floor-standing speakers that at the time were taller than I was.
He would often go in there, close the door, and listen to his music. Years later, after he had left, it became my room - and I did the same thing.
The barman is also the owner of the pub, and he’s bored as he half-heartedly reads The Daily Mirror, starting with the sports page. His name is Harry, and he’s one of eight people in the place.
Four of the others are morose drunks with broken veins in their noses, silent and barely aware of anything past the rim of their pint glasses. Two are chain-smoking, and it’s just a coincidence that both prefer Benson & Hedges.
The other three occupants are in the band, because Wednesday is live music night.
I have eighteen versions of the song that I listen to regularly. There are a couple of pairs of alternate remasters, but most are unique live versions, including a number of bootlegs. Each one is markedly different. I can identify which version is playing within a second, even from crowd noise.
I know every note of every solo. Indeed, every note of every part. I could lecture at length on how several versions could be spliced together to create the ultimate expression of the track. I’ll spare you that particular pleasure, for now at least.
Every so often, I hear it as if it’s new again. Maybe I’ll have gone a rare day or two without listening to it, or perhaps my attention will drift from whatever I’m doing just as the distinctive single- or triple-hit of percussion begins.
In those moments, I’m a boy again, and the music swallows me up.
There’s no fee for playing at the Admiral’s Hat; it’s not that kind of place. They’re playing for exposure, but the four drunks don’t seem to care about jazz music.
The singer has a guitar that’s seen much better days and isn’t quite in tune; the guy with the trumpet has a badly-wrapped joint tucked behind his ear and some arthritis in his wrists; the drummer has thick spectacles and a small scar on his chin.
The music isn’t inspiring, and Harry is glad their set is almost over.
I listened to it every day when I was travelling back and forth to high school on the train (thirty minutes each way, morning and night). I carried a Walkman for the first couple of years , then my mother kindly upgraded me to a Discman. I learned to walk evenly until skip-protection came along.
I listened to it during long car journeys as a teenager, with my headphones on. It was the soundtrack to every holiday, particularly those in later years that I spent on my own, in an echoing house for six or eight weeks at a time.
I played videogames with the sound turned down, so I could still hear the music. When I passed my driving test and got my first car, I played the song as I set out into the night almost every evening for months and months, exploring back roads, country lanes, and motorways by moonlight.
Then someone else comes in, and surprisingly it’s not a regular. The man is young - maybe in the latter half of his 20s - and he’s thin and awkward-looking.
He asks for a pint and gives a cheeky smile that Harry doesn’t care for, but the guy pays and sits quietly at the bar, so fair enough. The new guy barely notices the band, and just sips the pint like he’s in a hurry to get back out into the cold.
He drums his fingers gently on the scarred wooden surface, to some rhythm that only he can hear.
A guitar sits beside my desk in my home office; it’s a Stratocaster, of course. I pick it up in idle moments, and let my mind wander. My fingers move without my intervention, and I hear the song again.
I heard the song at my wedding, though Romeo and Juliet was our first dance, and whenever I’m in a pub and any Dire Straits track comes on, at least one of our friends will poke me in the ribs, smile, or raise a glass in salute.
Up on stage, the noise finally stops, and Harry is grateful. Then the front man steps back up to the microphone and says just one more thing, unselfconsciously, and not to anyone in particular.
“Thank you, and goodnight. We are the Sultans of Swing.”
Harry snorts silently to himself. The gangly guy at the bar looks around at the small stage area with one eyebrow raised, and there’s the cheeky smile again. He thinks for a moment then takes out a creased denim-blue notebook and a cheap ballpoint pen, and carefully writes something down.
Harry is standing several feet away behind the bar, cleaning glasses, and wonders what the kid felt he needed to preserve for posterity.
I have a 24-carat gold plated CD version of the eponymous compilation album. I have a Strat pick-guard, signed by Knopfler. I have an actual BMI Platinum Award for Alchemy Live, framed and glazed. And along the back of my desk, to one side of the iMac, I have about twenty copies of that same album. There are more elsewhere around the house.
When I was at university and I met the girl who would later become my wife, the first thing she ever gave me was a CDR containing a live version of Tunnel of Love that I’d never heard before. It was part of her own regular playlist, as well as Telegraph Road, Romeo and Juliet, and a few others.
A year or two ago, I asked her why I had such an obsession with this one song, and with Knopfler’s music in general. It was a genuine question, because I’ve never really understood it myself. She thought for only a few moments, then she told me that when my father had left, I’d clung to it as something that could be a bridge between us, and it had come to be a sort of surrogate presence in my life.
She also said that it was something constant, that couldn’t be taken away. She said those things effortlessly, as if she was just saying that two plus two obviously equals four. I was silent for a while after that.
When I trusted my voice again, I added “Also, it’s a great song.”
The band is packing up now, and Harry watches them without any emotion on his face.
Once they’re finally done and starting to carry their gear out, he glances back down the bar, but there’s only an empty pint glass sitting there waiting to be collected and washed for the next soul.
The drummer is carrying the big bass drum and shoves the door open with his shoulder, letting in a bitter breeze.
The streetlight outside is flickering as usual, and in the park across the street, Harry can see it’s finally started raining.
Maybe my wife was right. Probably, even. She’s far wiser than I am.
There’s certainly no particular lyrical or thematic relevance for me in the song. It is a great song, with a killer hook and an unforgettable bass line, and it has one of the most spine-tingling outros in rock. I can recognise those things intellectually and emotionally.
But its resonance for me comes from elsewhere. It’s an artefact of my life; a blanket and a reminder, and a patch of solid ground. A strong presence at my side, with a comforting hand on my shoulder.
We all have our talismans. For some, it’s a ring on a chain around their neck, worn beneath their clothes. Others keep a tattered teddy bear from childhood, sitting sensibly on a shelf now but still within reach if needed.
A treasured book, its spine worn and creased, and the paper yellowed. A recipe, faithfully prepared on the appointed day each year, taking on the trappings of ritual. The list goes on.
We’re haunted by these things, and willingly.
Sometimes they’re a symbol of our longing to return to a simpler time. But sometimes they’re shrapnel, lodged deep, and festering long after the boom of the explosion has faded from our ears.
You get a shiver in the dark-
…and that’s all it takes for me to be back there.
Not that I ever really left.
Author’s note: The event described in the interspersed narrative segments of this piece actually took place, and formed the inspiration for the song in question - though I have no idea which pub the young Mark Knopfler walked into, or what the original Sultans looked like. I’ve also dressed the story for mood, of course. Forgive the dramatic license.
The ‘Harry’ mentioned in Knopfler’s famous song was Harry Vanda, but I liked the name so much that I decided the bar’s owner might share it.