Certain bands are inevitably linked with certain times of your life, and for me the noughties were knotted with the Sultans of Ping FC. While I would love to describe seeing singer Niall O’Flaherty get punched in the face in that infamous Limerick gig (“Good evening stab city”), or the time an unknown band called Radiohead supported the Sultans in ‘92, I cannot. I wasn’t there in Cork in the early days, never saw them in Sir Henry’s or had to make a ‘Blur or Oasis’ choice between them and the Frank and Walters.
So then, why the Sultans of Ping? Sure don’t they only sing about jumpers and Japanese girls?
Well, Galway has been responsible for many a strange life choice and it was there my obsession with the Sultans began. Like any Irish person I’ve always loved ‘Where’s me Jumper’. It’s a classic. Even your granny probably likes it! But my gateway drug into the Sultans was their second album “Teenage Drug”. I moved to Galway in 2004, and lived in a share house with four friends from Naas. None of us were doing much at the time; I was working in an Ice rink, getting paid to ice skate around and pick people up when they fell over. It was in this atmosphere of apathy that my friend Paul handed me a copy of Teenage Drug on tape. The punchy drum beat! The punky guitars! Niall shrieking “all the teenage punks come from planet-sexy-love”! It was ridiculous, and cool, and from the first blast of ‘Teenage Punks’ I was hooked. Listening to it now it’s not the greatest album of all time. The band had dropped the FC from their name, and tried to be a bit more serious. But it had something about it that kept making me hit the rewind button on my Walkman. If Teenage Drug was the gateway, it was not until I heard their debut album, Casual Sex in the Cineplex, that I was hooked.
Casual Sex in the Cineplex is a masterpiece. With the exception of My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, or Van Morrisson’s Astral Weeks, I don’t think there’s a better Irish album. Cast in the same mould as the first three Ramones albums, every song on it could be a single. Equal measures sneering and insulting, hilarious and fun, it’s effortlessly catchy. No matter where I am in the world if I see a record store I immediately go to the second hand “S” section, and search for a copy on vinyl. I’ve looked for it in Berlin and Bangkok, in Wellington and Reykjavik and have yet to find it (I was given a copy as a Christmas present last year by a cheat who went online).
I think it’s often overlooked what good songwriters the Sultans were. Somehow they managed to write lyrics that were really intelligent in a really juvenile way. It’s because of the humour in their songs that they are often dismissed as a novelty act, or lumped in with the likes of Neds Atomic Dustbin. This is a travesty. They wrote perfect, pop-punk songs, without sounding like Blink 182! Their lyrics could be funny;
“When we were young we would go pill popping dear, we’d be pill popping thought there was no stopping dear, we’d be pill popping thought there was no stopping dear, but right now I think I’d rather go shopping dear” (Let’s go shopping)
“Saturday afternoon and I’m drinking with the guys, thinking of the day’s results and your lovely eyes”; (Two pints of Raza)
“And now I know you better well I’ve come to one conclusion, eight out of ten of your best friends deserve electrocution”. (Michiko)
They even had a song made of quotes Brian Clough said about his son Nigel;
“He’s a nice young man, he has a lovely smile”! (Give him a ball and a yard of grass)
My current favourite lyric of theirs is when they evoke the spirit of the Reverend Martin Luther King to rally against the scourge of modern society – football being played on astro-turf pitches;
“It’s living in peace in harmony, it’s a holiday for referees, cause I’ve got a dream. Society without a class, where all of football’s played on grass, cause I’ve got a dream” (No More Plastic Pitches)
The Sultans reformed in 2005 and needless to say I was excited about seeing them. They announced a show at a festival in Berlin and myself and 3 friends headed over specifically to see them. The whole trip was a disaster! We missed our flight, we lost our wallets, and fell asleep in some of the dingiest ditches in Berlin! It was one of the greatest holiday’s I’ve ever had.
They played at a really weird, hokey little festival, located on a farm a half an hour outside the city. The whole festival seemed like something from the mind of David Lynch! There was a petting zoo beside the main stage, and every now and again, mid song, you would hear a peacock screeching. At night, the dance tent turned into a spontaneous football match, with points being scored for who could hit the DJ in the head with a football. In a line-up filled with tripe like the Klaxons, the Sultans arrived on stage like a whirlwind! Personified by Niall O’Flaherty’s Iggy Pop/Lux Interior like berating of the crowd, he seemed to glee in provoking the audience into some sort of a reaction. The predominately German audience looked like it had been slapped in the face, and they loved it! Or at least I did.
After the gig the we ended up chatting with the band, who seemed a bit shocked that four twenty something year olds would travel all the way to Berlin to see them, when they were already well past their peak. My friend Paul piped up told them we only went “cause we heard the Sultan’s of Ping were really shit and we wanted to see for ourselves”. Niall O’ Flaherty then put his arm around Paul, looked at me and said “Look after your friend… he’s a bit weird isn’t he?”
I still laugh about that today!
Following that show being a Sultan’s fan became like supporting a football club, we went to home and away games. I saw them in Whelan’s, lying on a beer stained, broken glass covered floor, kicking my legs in the air for Turnip Fish, and at the Mantua festival in Roscommon, when a member of the crowed drove a tractor into the dance tent. I was at their return gig in Limerick “it’s good to be back in stab city”; when they supported Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine in Brixton Academy, and when they played a squat in Amsterdam.
I kept hoping they would play Tokyo.
We joined the online Sultans fan forum – Shimmy Shammey Sultans, a melting pot of Sultans nerds (like myself) who would go to all their gigs. It was populated by people with unusual monikers like ‘Hairy Vince’, ‘Gary Coleman’ and ‘Deirdre Barlow’. At gigs you might sheepishly ask the person beside you “so, umm, what’s your shimmy shammy sultan’s name?”. I downloaded all their early B-sides (which are incredible), and listened to them to death, even giving a copy of them to a bemused Noel Fielding. At one stage I was working as an extra on the TV series the Tudors. On a break between takes I spotted Maria Doyle Kennedy and made a b-line for her. As she was pouring herself a cup of coffee I clumsily saddled up beside her and blurted out “hi Hi Maria… emm… you’re a big Sultans of Ping fan aren’t you?”. She almost choked on her coffee before gasping “How.Do.You… know that?”
After a few years the reunion seemed to be fizzling out. Much like their albums, the initial burst of excitement had passed, and the band seemed to be enjoying it less and less. They released a new single “Girl Watching” in 2007. While it’s fun to hear live, it paled in comparison to any of their early stuff. In 2010 I saw them play a gig in London. There were rumours in the crowd that the end was nigh, and they really didn’t seem that interested to be there. In a way I was kind of glad. I needed a break too.
I moved to Australia shortly after the gig and it would be four years before I saw them again. I sometimes went weeks without listening to Casual Sex.
Though the band didn’t split up, they did start to play fewer and fewer gigs. In 2014 The Sultans announced they were playing in Cypress Avenue in Cork, the same week I had tickets to see a reformed Jesus and Mary Chain in Dublin. The JAMC played one of the worst gigs I ever attended. They fought onstage, songs broke down mid song, and they looked like they could care less. After that debacle I was a little apprehensive about seeing the Sultans. I’d seen one over the hill reformed act, I really didn’t want to go to Cork to see another. But I did go, and my fears were unfounded. The Sultans were incredible, and I was transported back to when I lived on Dyke Road in Galway, listening to Teenage Drug on tape in heavy rotation.
I don’t know what the future holds for the Sultans. They will probably never have their picture on the Button Factory’s Irish ‘Rock N’Roll’ wall of fame, or top the Irish Times greatest Irish albums of all-time list. They will probably pack it in soon, but I don’t care. Some of the best nights of my life have been spent listening to the Sultans of Ping. Now, let’s all lie on the ground, kick our feet in the air and sing …
“I’m the kind of fish who likes to do my own thing,
I like to rock and roll with the Sultans of Ping,
All the other fish don’t understand,
The Sultans of Ping are my favourite band”