The rise and fall of iconic Cork band Sultans of Ping

As the Sultans of Ping re-release Casual Sex in the Cineplex, Ed Power looks back on the rollercoaster ride of the Cork band’s rise and fall.

AJ Barratt's photograph of the Sultans of Ping in Cork in 1992 for an NME feature

Midnight was fast approaching when a beaten-up van pulled up outside Hull’s New Adelphi Club and disgorged four esoterically-attired Irish men.

It was October 5, 1992 and, delayed by fog over the Irish Sea, The Sultans of Ping FC were late for one of the most important performances of their career to date.

Three hours behind schedule, the Sultans expected most of the 200-plus capacity crowd to have long since cleared off. Instead, a full house had patiently lingered for the beginning of their much-hyped Where’s Me Jumper tour.

At that moment they realised they were rock stars.

“There was no such thing as the internet back then and we were all still living in Cork,” remembers

Sultans drummer Morty McCarthy.

“But we kept hearing from people we knew who had moved to the UK — ‘Oh you’re on the radio here all the time’. I’ll always remember the Hull show — by the time we got there it was meant to be long over. People had waited for us — all on the strength of ‘Where’s Me Jumper?’”

The Sultans of Ping were the pop earthquake that shouldn’t have happened.

Bratty, arch, sprinkled with 3am profundity, these pretentious pranksters stormed Irish and then British rock. Along the way they gave us one of the great Irish singles —the still widely-played ‘Where’s Me Jumper’ — and briefly, thrillingly made Cork the centre of the indie universe.

Now, on its 25th anniversary, the band’s debut album, Casual Sex In The Cineplex, is to receive long-overdue acknowledgement as a treasured item of Irish rock history.

A lavish reissue by Cherry Red Records will feature the complete original LP and a second disc of B-sides and live cuts, the package completed with liner notes by guitarist Samuel Steiger, of the Golden Horde and, in one of their later ‘90s incarnations, The Sultans.

TIME AND PLACE

What makes the Sultans story fascinating is that it was completely of its time and place.

Rock scenes don’t really exist nowadays and the ability of the music press, such as it is, to pluck artists from the student bars and open mic nights and turn them into stars is gone never to return.

Twenty-five years ago, by contrast The Sultans climbed music’s slippery pole on the back of ringing endorsements from the then all-powerful NME, Melody Maker and Hot Press.

They were gobby and controversial and, in Niall O’Flaherty, had a lead singer who wore dresses, feather boas and pink sun glasses — usually all at once.

People were soon talking about Cork as a rock hotbed but, in truth, the Sultans were a musical movement all onto themselves.

“I know [Island Records supremo] Chris Blackwell well and he tipped me off to a proto-grunge pop band The Cranberry Saw Us [later to be The Cranberries],” says Martin Heath, head of long-defunct Rhythm King records. He signed the Sultans after seeing the foursome on the Sunday night of the Cork Rocks festival, held in the city’s famous Sir Henry’s venue in June 1991.

“After a few pints and the nutty reaction from Cork lads, I forgot about The Cranberries…. I thought ‘Where’s Me Jumper?’ was perfect for BBC Radio 1. “

Rhythm King was both an unlikely home for the Sultans — and also the perfect springboard for their assault on UK pop. Heath had formed the label initially as a dance and rap off-shoot of Mute Records (Depeche Mode, Nick Cave).

“Martin Heath was a very spontaneous kind of person,” remembers Sultans singer Niall O’Flaherty. “He saw what he liked and went with us. This was the man who signed Betty Boo and Deee-Lite light. But it was quite chaotic. They didn’t know quite what they were at with an indie band. We didn’t have a great plan either. We were making it up as we went.”

A first attempt, late in 1991, to record an LP at a studio in Blackpool on Cork’s north side proved unsuccessful. For all their stage presence, the Sultans were still finding their feet as musicians and the results of the sessions were deemed too shambolic to even be utilised as demos. But when they returned to the album, this time at Fulham’s Matrix Studios in late 1992 the situation has changed profoundly.

“We’d done two straight tours — the Where’s Me Jumper Tour and the Stupid Kid Tour,” remembers Morty McCarthy. “We played 60 gigs in three months and had really become a lot tighter and could play.

Before that we got through with Niall’s personality because he was such a showman. In the studio it was different. You had to be tight.”

When Heath had offered to sign the Sultans on the strength of their Sir Henry’s performance, the band had been impressed to see that he had brought with him from London a shiny Filofax.

This, they concluded, was a guy who meant business. Now he was able to utilise his extensive contacts list and put O’Flaherty and company in contact with producer Steve Lovell, who had worked with Blur on their debut LP Leisure.

“They were very raw but they played well together and, from playing a lot of live gigs, were tighter than a lot of young less experienced bands,” recalls Lovell of the Casual Sex sessions.

“They were also up for learning and okay to go through the process often required in the studio of going over and over sections until it felt right.”

There were nonetheless occasional culture clashes between the experienced Englishman and four Corkonians who had never previously lived away from home for an extended period.

“Niall was so charismatic and very funny and on occasions a complete pain in the arse,” remembers Lovell. “He was head-to-toe a star. I designed a sleep schedule for him when we were in the studio because it came to the point where he was up all night and sleeping in the day, which didn’t work as we wanted to record in the day. I slowly coaxed him back to sleeping more normally. ”

“It’s absolutely true,” says O”Flaherty.

“I was living entirely by night and more or less sleeping in the day. Steve Lovell coached the vocals out of somebody with so little musical ability. He was master in many ways.

"You would do something absolutely ridiculous. Any normal producer would turn around and say, ‘oh for goodness sake’. He’d always say, ‘aww love that’.”’

The Sultans had started out as an extracurricular activity for O’Flaherty and some school pals at St Francis’s College in Rochestown, on the south side of Cork city.

Early gigs, in the school hall, saw the singer experimenting with his outré persona even if, aged 17, he was far from a polished performer.

“There was always a bit of a punk thing going on at the school,” recalls O’Flaherty, the only member of that initial line-up to make it to the Casual Sex sessions.

“At my bus-stop you’d meet people who were into alternative music. It is kind of astonishing that the

Capuchins would let us take to the stage. I remember on one occasion I had a massive cold sore and I made the error of putting on green ointment so that it was almost luminous. That didn’t help.”

INDIE CENTRAL

What did help was the fact that Cork becoming somewhat of an indie hot-bed, centred around the Liberty Bar on South Main Street, the nearby Sir Henry’s venue and, later, Comet Records on Washington Street.

“Cork had a very lively alternative scene when we were in our teens,” remembers O’Flaherty.

“Sir Henrys was the hub of it. People were very knowledgeable. I remember going to see Sonic Youth play and Nirvana were supporting. I didn’t watch much of them [Nirvana] but they had a following in Cork, even then.”

‘Where’s Me Jumper’ — inspired by garment of O’Flaherty’s that went missing at a nightclub and was later found urinated on — was written in 1989 while the band was practicing in their regular rehearsal space at

Sullivan’s Quay school. Guitarist Pat O’Connell had by that point joined though it would be another two years until McCarthy and bassist Alan McFeely cemented the line-up.

“I was a little bit older and started out as their manager,” remembers McCarthy.

“Niall and Pat and their friends — they didn’t know or have any interest in the previous generation of Cork bands. Microdisney, Five Go Down to the Sea… all of that. They said, ‘ this is now’. I had grown up with Cypress, Mine. These guys had no respect for any of that.”

By 1992 the Sultans’ stardom was blossoming in earnest.

Curious about these Irishmen with strange accents and an idiosyncratic sound, the British music press descended on Cork en masse.

An NME feature published in May of that year featured the photograph above, and said the city was “garnering a reputation for being a massive open-plan asylum of crazy, colourful crackpots, where busmen laways smile”. In the interview, McCarthy exits early in order to go mass.

The Face magazine came in the autumn of 1991, when the band were playing in the quirky Village venue that formed part of the Sir Henrys/Grand Parade Hotel complex.

The Sultans of Ping live on stage at The Savoy, Cork on Wednesday 21st December 2005. Picture: Larry Cummins.

“That night the weirdest bunch of Cork characters turned up,” remembers McCarthy.

“They were people saying the rosary in one room and we were playing in the other and all our fans were going berserk. The Face were going, ‘What the hell is this?’ We were the biggest band in the world — but just in Cork. Martin Heath’s insight was that… well, if it works here it can work somewhere else too.”

QUIRKY CORK

Niall Stokes, editor of Hot Press, says there was always a fierce streak of independence about the leading artists to come out of Cork.

“That was true of the great Rory Gallagher, who blazed such a lasting trail. But there was something even more explicitly quirky and maverick about bands like Nun Attax, Microdisney and Stump, who emerged in the punk era,” says Stokes.

“The Sultans of Ping were in that lineage. They had what we felt was a very Hot Press-ish kind of spirit about them, to which the title of their debut album Casual Sex In The Cineplex was just one clue. They also had that fine streak of domesticity, which The Undertones had championed… But they laced it with a kind of anarchic surrealism and wit — which was also something to which we related closely.”

With the Sultans in the charts and on the radio, Cork was being spoken of in the same breath of Manchester and its “baggy” scene. The Frank and Walters, also from the south side of the city, had been signed by London-based Setanta.

For anyone living in Cork at the time, it was a thrilling moment. That something strange and wonderful was about to happen would have been clear walking past Comet Records early in 1992.

The city’s famous independent record store had devoted the entirety of its window display to the Where’s Me Jumper twelve-inch single.

“I did a whole window featuring I think 30 record sleeves of Where’s Me Jumper because I knew that this was going to be huge,” recalls Jim O’Mahony, Comet’s owner and previously a bandmate of McCarthy’s in the short-lived Dancing Bastards from Hell.

Sultans of Ping in Cork in 1993. Picture copyright: AJ Barratt.

Because this is the music industry, the story had a bittersweet ending. Having feted the Sultans and portrayed Cork as quirky wonderland, the British music press quickly abandoned the band.

The Union Jack bunting was brought out instead and Blur and Oasis heralded as the future of pop.

A lacerating one-star review from Melody Maker for Casual Sex confirmed that yesterday’s heroes were very much today’s zeroes — though this didn’t stop the record become the highest selling album in Ireland of the year (in the UK it charted at a respectable 26).

“There was an element of portraying Cork as exotic,” says O’Flaherty. “Which is a little bit annoying because you are always going to get a backlash.

“And that happened very quickly. The UK music press really did expect you to look after them — to wine and dine them. I’m not saying we weren’t prepared to do that. But we were probably just too lazy to do it. We had our thing going and we felt a bit invincible.”

Melody Maker is long gone but the Sultans are arguably more popular today than at any point since the early 1990s.

With ‘Where’s Me Jumper’ popping up on popular comedies such as Moone Boy and The Young Offenders and the soccer anthem ‘Give Him A Ball (And A Yard of Grass’) — a homage to Nottingham Forest’s Nigel Clough — featuring on Off The Ball on Newstalk they’ve built an entirely new audience, one perfectly placed to rediscover Casual Sex on its 25th anniversary.

“It’s no surprise that ‘Where’s Me Jumper’ has been used in the likes of Moone Boy and Young

Offenders,” says Hot Press’s Niall Stokes. “It is smart, funny, socially acute — and evokes a youthful way of looking at the world that still feels funny, poignant and relevant all at once. And it is delivered with brilliant gusto.”

Perhaps it really is time to rediscover it.

The 25th anniversary edition of Casual Sex in the Cineplex is today out on the Cherry Red label.

Where's me daughter?

This iconic photograph of the Sultans of Ping was taken by celebrated music photographer AJ Barratt in 1992 for a feature that appeared in NME in May of that year. It was snapped at a derelict site at Leitrim Street, now home to a Topaz garage.

Sultans singer Niall O’Flaherty has a slogan written on his chest, ‘Cork is an anagram of rock’.

He had brought his daughter Lucca to Cork for the trip.

At the shoot, he suggested that O’Flaherty hold the baby, and the surreal combination of strange young men and cute baby made for a classic picture.

It wouldn’t be Lucca’s only encounter with music stars. A year later, her dad brought her along to a London hotel for a shoot with Leonard Cohen, and the Canadian singer dangled the toddler by her legs for another great photograph. Lucca, inset, is now 26, and works as an events organiser and DJ agent.

When Sultans grow up

Niall O’Flaherty, singer is now a lecturer in the History of European Political Thought at King’s College, London. He specialises in 18th and 19th-century thinkers such as Thomas Robert Malthus and Charles Darwin.

Pat O’Connell, guitar: works in banking, London.

Alan McFeely, bass guitar: works in film music, in London (credits include 2011 Anne Hathaway rom-com One Day).

Morty McCarthy, drums: works in band merchandise for artists such as Radiohead and teaches English in Sweden.


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