NIALL O’FLAHERTY isn’t angry — not any more. It used to be a source of immense frustration for the Sultans of Ping singer that his band was disdained as a novelty act, a joke searching for a punchline.
In the very worst days, before the Sultans broke up for the first time in 1997, he would inflict his dark moods on audiences. In Limerick he once almost precipitated a riot by commencing a show with the zinger “so this is stab city”. These are not gilded memories.
“We were angry,” he says. “It was an honest expression of our [frustration]. Whether it was fair to take that out on the audience I’m not sure … Some people feel that went a bit too far. Some of the audience were of the opinion … ‘well we paid so much to come and see you and you just come here and abuse us’.”
The real object of the Sultans’ disaffection was the UK music press, which turned on the Corkonians early and — incredible though it may seem today — had a hand in their demise (the group reunited in 2005 and have played reunion shows on and off ever since).
“They really had such power,” O’Flaherty recalls. “Amazing power back then. Had we had the internet, we could have weathered it a bit longer. I’m not bitter about that crap. We got too hung up on it at the time. We should have ignored it — that’s good advice for young bands. Just ignore it.”
Ironically, the Sultans were initially embraced by the London media, feted as quirky Irishmen with a provocative singer and, in their enduring hit Where’s Me Jumper, a bouncy anthem. The love-in didn’t last. Drummer Morty McCarthy feels the rise of Britpop played its part in Sultan’s downfall.
“As soon as Britpop arrived the media coverage dried up,” he remembers. “Unfortunately this was around the time our second record came out. The media was not interested. It was all about pushing Cast, pushing Menswear… bands like that. We weren’t very cool. I remember working with the Chemical Brothers, them going ‘oh my god, Sultans of Ping… we loved you’. Maybe it was one of those things you didn’t say in public.”
The Sultans, it is fair to state, are having the final chuckle. Over the past few years, their stock has risen immeasurably. A new generation was introduced to the odd-ball genius of Where’s Me Jumper, their silly, profound valentine to a missing pullover, when Chris O’Dowd used it as the theme tune to his comedy Moone Boy. Just last month, Lily Allen named ‘Jumper’ one of her favourite pieces of music ever on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs. On YouTube Where’s Me Jumper has been streamed nearly a million times. To the mild astonishment of everyone who was there first time around, The Sultans are enjoying a moment.
“We won the ‘World Cup Anthems’ competition on BBC Radio Six,” says McCarthy. They had a Twitter vote. Graham Le Saux [ex England international] was representing us on the radio. It’s so strange.”
The comeback, McCarthy feels, is entirely owed to the internet. The days of the rock press wielding absolute power are over; with music just a click away, nowadays people can make up their own minds.
“Back then it was just lazy journalism in my opinion. The internet has taken away the power of the music journalist and given it to the people.”
You might expect the group to be revelling in the return to respectability. McCarthy, based in Sweden with a day job in band merchandise (clients include Radiohead), certainly seems chuffed. O’Flaherty, a lecturer in history in London, is more conflicted. Well into his forties, you sense an ambivalence about jumping around in a fur coat belting out thrash-punk ditties such as Back In A Tracksuit and Armitage Shanks (a paean to the popular toilet manufacturer)
“We loved the comeback a few years ago, loved playing again,” he says. “I wonder at this stage of the game… well we should probably have cut it out about two years ago. We should really have stopped. I mean, I always had it in my head we would stop eventually. Initially when we came back we could do it as well as before. That was probably true until about two years ago. Now it’s getting close to the time to put ends to this.”
Has it started to feel ridiculous, all that prancing about under the spotlight? “I just think there are certain kinds of music you can keep playing… Someone like Leonard Cohen or the blues greats… they could keep going well into their 50s. Let’s face it we don’t improve with age. This isn’t a golden twilight… it’s more like a fucking lingering death.”
O’Flaherty turns slightly coy asked if the band are doing well out of ‘Where’s Me Jumper’? You suspect they might be. The song is on radio all the time; then there are the royalties accruing from Moone Boy, a substantial hit in Ireland, the UK and America, where it is carried on the Hulu internet platform. You picture letterboxes stuffed with royalty cheques.
“I’d rather not comment on that,” he demurs, clamping up for the first time in our conversation.
The great thing about the Sultans in the 90s, says McCarthy, is that they were absolutely genuine. Their image — wacky, cerebral, flamboyant — was 100 per cent real. He looks at some young bands nowadays and detects the invisible hand of stylists, managers, PR executives. With the Sultans, what you saw is what you got. The weren’t pretending to be anything other than who they really were.
“We don’t mean to knock a band like The Strypes… there’s a lot of thought goes into what they are doing. The Sultans never had that world view.
“We believed it was normal that fans would lie on the ground and kick their legs in the air at shows, as used to happen in Cork. We weren’t doing it to be weird. That’s what we were really like.”
Our time is almost up but I have to ask: was there truth to the story, reported in by the Cork media circa 1992, that the Sultans were to record a song with soccer star Roy Keane? McCarthy laughs.
“That was never true. He did come into the Liberty Bar [the Sultans’ quasi-mythical city centre hang-out] to look for us once. He was at [Nottingham] Forest at the time… Niall is a big Forest fan. People added two and two and made five.
“You have lots of weird things like that. We had a song about Armitage Shanks and they sent us a plaque – ‘thanks from the Armitage Shanks factory’. When you look back it is amazing. At the time we didn’t think too much about it. We were just too busy.”
Where’s Me Jumper was a moderate hit on its release in 1992 — peaking at eight in the Irish charts and 67 in the UK. It has since assumed a strange afterlife, however.
Speaking to the Irish Examiner, Moone Boy writer and star Chris O’Dowd (inset right) said the song played a key part in the gestation of the show, for which it serves as theme tune.
“I love the anarchic joy of it. It’s the song the kids from the Smells Like Teen Spirit video danced to before their acne came.”
Another fan is singer Lily Allen, who chose Jumper as one of her Desert Island Discs. “I have no idea what it’s about,” she said. “It’s just a fun and sort of jump up, anarchic, ridiculous song that’s about losing your jumper.”
There have long been rumours the lyrics are based on a true story. Sultans singer Niall O’Flaherty is happy to confirm this, even if the specifics have grown fuzzy across the decades.
“At this point, the particulars aren’t really clear to me,” he says. “I seem to remember it had something to do with Spider’s nightclub. We actually did lose a jumper there.”