B-Side the Leeside: Sultans of Ping - Casual Sex in the Cineplex

Ed Power gets the inside story on the city’s most wonderfully titled record, in the first instalment of our new weekly feature on Cork albums.
B-Side the Leeside: Sultans of Ping - Casual Sex in the Cineplex

In the first instalment of our new weekly feature on Cork albums, Ed Power gets the inside story on the city’s most wonderfully titled record

North London had never witnessed anything like it. In mid-1992, Cork band Sultans of Ping were headlining The Venue, an indie poke-hole at King’s Cross.

The room was an acknowledged proving-ground for groups on the up. Blur and Suede had already graced its tiny stage; that same year, Radiohead and Pulp would tread its boards.

None received a welcome as raucous as the Sultans.

“The gig… is less of a concert than a communion,” went a breathless review in Select magazine, the music monthly which would eventually morph into a cheerleader for Britpop but which, in 1992, still retained some credibility.

The Venue is packed with committed Sultanites who know when to sing, when to stage-dive and, most importantly, when to do the Dying Fly.

The Dying Fly involved the crowd lying on their backs kicking their feet in the air as the Sultans proceeded through woozy b-side ‘Turnip Fish’. This was quite gesture of fealty, considering the state of the floors in most rock venues at the time. Sultans frontman Niall O’Flaherty may have famously sang about misplacing his brand new sweater. But after the Dying Fly many punters were lucky to get home with their coats and trousers intact.

Music Press Hype

Such pandemonium was by now all part of an evening’s work for the Sultans. They were that rarest thing: an Irish band caught in the British music press vortex of uncontrollable hype.

Typically, many Irish acts were too po-faced and earnest and also far too boring to interest the London music media.

The Sultans, very much a Cork proposition rather than an Irish one, were cut from a more exciting cloth. They were gobby and jokey yet terrifically serious about their bubble-gum punk pop.

Everything that was great about the quartet was catalysed on the LP they were in the process of recording around the time of the Venue gig. Casual Sex In The Cineplex, when it was released in February 1993, proved, as great albums often do divisive in the short term.

Melody Maker had great fun kicking it in the shins (though it had previously hailed the Sultans “the missing link between Val Doonican and Jilted John”). Others were kinder.

And the indie masses embraced it. Casual Sex peaked at 23 in the UK charts, its popularity no doubt assisted by instantly-iconic single ‘Where’s Me Jumper?’ (which would have a second life as theme to Chris O’Dowd’s Sky TV comedy Moone Boy).

False Starts and new Beginnings

Today Casual Sex stands tall as a classic of playful, pranking art-pop. And, with short, sharp, shocking thrillers such as ‘Two Pints of Rasa’ and ‘You Talk To Much’ — singer O’Flaherty’s favourite cut — alongside the ubiquitous ‘...Jumper’ it is without dispute one of the greatest Cork long players of all time.

Twenty-seven years on, in this current strange, historical moment, the project’s wit and mouthy exuberance arguably shine brighter than ever. In a reassessment of Casual Sex on its 25th anniversary — when it was treated to a lavish re-release by Cherry Red Records — Classic Rock took up the baton on its behalf.

“Merging Buzzcocks punk, Weddoes thrash, Stuffies knees-up hooks and Carter USM alt.rants,” went the review. “It’s a fun assortment of indie pop novelties about football, karaoke, S&M and knitwear that is well worth a revisit for its strumbling odes to punching below your weight (‘2 Pints Of Rasa’, ‘Veronica’), the JD Sports drone rock of ‘Back In The Tracksuit’ and invigorating indie janglers like ‘Stupid Kid’ and ‘You Talk Too Much’, but most of all to drift back to the days when we didn’t have to take everything so damn seriously.”

Casual Sex was so good the band literally made it twice. Singer O’Flaherty, drummer Morty McCarthy, guitarist Pat O’Connell and bassist Alan McFeely first had a go at cutting the record in Blackpool in Cork.

Alas the sessions were messy and incoherent. Worse yet, they failed to channel the irreverence of the live sets. So, with press interest growing, in the summer of 1992 they swapped the north side of Cork for Marcus Studios in Fulham, south-west London.

“The first time, in Cork, didn’t quite work out,” says O’Flaherty. “At that time, many of the songs did not have fixed structures, and the playing and ‘singing’ left a lot to be desired.

"Then, after a lot of rehearsal and work on the songs, we had another shot at Marcus Studios. The record company were keen for us to capture the ferocity and absurdity of the live shows.

We failed in this — in terms of the ferocity, at least — but something else came out of it, which people seemed to like.

Making the Record

“We recorded Casual Sex in the summer of 1992,” recalls McCarthy. “It was a great time to be in the band.

"We were riding the crest of a wave thanks to the success of the two singles released earlier in the year: ‘Where’s Me Jumper?’ and ‘Stupid Kid’. The band had tightened up considerably thanks to six months of touring between January and June which saw us do more shows than all the previous years combined.

So we were battle-hardened and we had the perfect producer in Steve Lovell who really helped us find our sound.

“We were really inexperienced in the studio but he really knew how to get the best out of us. We were all staying in rooms above the studio and it was really exciting to be in London over an extended period of time. It was the longest any of us had been away from Cork.”

O’Flaherty agrees that Lovell was the perfect producer for the band. “He was open to all our naïve experimentalism,” says O’Flaherty. “But also willing to pull the plug on our excesses. He also did a mean falsetto backing vocal which really appealed to me.”

Lovell told the

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“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.”

Beginning of the End

The Sultans cheeky chappie reputation by now preceded them. They’d enjoyed waging a one-way feud against the dog-on-a-string upstarts Levellers, decrying these hardcore socialists for flogging pricey t-shirts.

Casual Sex captured that aspect of the Sultans along with O’Flaherty’s red-eyed punk-persona which harked back to spiritual forbears The Cramps and the New York Dolls. Added to this was an eye for absurdity rooted in their upbringing in Cork.

Lovell felt that the novelty tag ultimately worked against the Sultans and got in their way of their being taken seriously. Certainly the backlash when it arrived later in 1993, led inevitably by the NME and Melody Maker, was ferocious.

“I didn’t produce ‘Where’s Me Jumper’ and thought it was a bit of a novelty record,” said Lovell. “It actually probably, along with their name, did as much damage as good because there other material wasn’t taken that seriously and a lot of it was great.”

Even second time around, in Fulham, Casual Sex did not come together easily. Every band had its differences. The Sultans were no different.

“We had – and have – some raging rows,” says O’Flaherty. “But, on the whole, we got on pretty well.

We had that gang mentality that many punk bands have, and this was galvanised by some of the negativity about us in the press.

Lasting Legacy

More than a quarter of a century on Casual Sex’s unhinged genius is beyond dispute and when the Irish Examiner began its roll-call for best ever Cork records, the album was naturally first in line for lionising.

For the Sultans, however, it is ancient history. They still occasionally play together — such as last year’s revived Féile festival in Tipperary — but only when the fancy takes.

“To be honest, I preferred the second album [1994’s Teenager Drug] myself, or some of it at least,” says O’Flaherty. “My

favourite song on the first record is ‘You Talk Too Much’.”

“I really like ‘Clitus Clarke’,” says McCarthy.

Shame we didn’t play that more often live — I’m delighted, though, that it made the record.

And, had they their time over again, is there anything they would do differently?

“Have a plan of some kind, or at least a dress policy,” says O’Flaherty.

We would also obviously have to behave much better than we did, since nowadays everything would be filmed!

    Sultans of Ping: Where are they now?
  • Dr Niall O’Flaherty, vocalist, is senior lecturer in the History of European Political Thought at King’s College London.
  • Morty McCarthy, drummer, is now based in Sweden, and has overseen merchandising sales for arena-fillers such as Oasis and Radiohead.
  • Pat O’Connell, guitarist, works in banking.
  • Alan McFeely, bass, works in film music in London.

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