I have been VERY BUSY, oh yes, promoting my first and possibly my last gig - I'm a great believer in quitting while you're ahead. Cork's mighty Sultans of Ping have just played their first show in 8 years to an adoring and very sold-out audience in ... Grays Working Men's Club in Essex. How did this all come to pass? Let me give you a potted history if you don't know why you should care how fantastic they are. And then you can find some music at the end.
The Sultans of Ping FC were one of alternative music's brightest stars for a short while in the early 90s. This was mainly caused by an "extremely annoying" novelty hit, Where's Me Jumper, which was released on Rhythm King in 1992 and reached no 67 in the UK charts, although I have been told that it was the biggest selling single of that year in Ireland. The band were picked up by Sony and two more low-charting singles followed that year, Stupid Kid and Veronica which reached 67 and 69 respectively. The band's debut album, Casual Sex In The Cineplex, came out at the beginning of 1993 along with what was to be a fourth single, U Talk 2 Much, which became the band's one and only UK foray onto Top Of The Pops, peaking at no 26 in its second week of release in January 1993. It was around this time that Suede and Radiohead were among the bands supporting the Sultans as they gigged relentlessly up and down the country.
As you might gather from the name, a lot of the songs had a football theme, but Sony (yeah, that record label that EVERYONE loves right now) were a bit concerned about the novelty tag sticking and "advised" them to remove the FC from their name for the second album, Teenage Drug, which was released in 1994. The first single, Teenage Punks, didn't build on the previous one, peaking at 49, and two others, Michiko and Wake Up And Scratch Me, scraped the top 50 as well. Sony dumped them and joined the other majors who were all writing love letters to Britpop, the Sultans of Ping became the Sultans, recruited another guitarist, released a third album in 1996 - Good Year For Trouble - which sold less and less. The live venues became smaller, and the band called it a day in 1997.
Drummer Morty McCarthy joined Pharmacy with Ian Olney from another Irish band, the Power of Dreams, and I saw them live in Chelmsford in 1999 supporting Fruitbat (from Carter USM) and his new band, Abdoujaparov. Singer Niall O'Flaherty wrote and produced The Fake Fake Sound of Mika Bomb from the Japanese girl band of the same name in 2000 - it sounds pretty much like the Sultans' music performed by, well, a Japanese girl band. Rumour has it that most of this album was intended to be the Sultans' fourth. The bass player, Alan McFeeley, joined The Young Offenders who had a no 60 hit, That's Why We Lose Control, in 1998. His brother Kieran, also in the band, went to have a bit more success as Simple Kid and plastered Truck On in the UK top 40 as recently as last year.
Musically, I'm not sure where to pigeonhole the Sultans. They were very Ramones-influenced and to me their guitarplay sounds a lot like The Others of the bands around today - in fact I went on their messageboard to talk about them and the Sultans gained a lot of fans from there, so I could be right. However Niall's lyrics, always bordering on the sublime and the ridiculous, were the thing which sets them apart from a hundred similar bands - well perhaps Art Brut come close. The band were based in Cork, along with the Frank and Walters who were causing a similar stir at the time, leading people to talk about a rather non-existant "Cork scene" to rival Madchester, etc. Both bands ended up on the cover of the NME at least once.
I loved the Sultans. As a big follower of the indie scene at that time, they'd be supporting bands I loved (like Carter USM) and performing in tiny little venues where they always sounded fantastic. Their songs were typical punk rock 100 second workouts with added wit, and Niall would abuse the audience throughout - all part of the stage act of course - and deal with any hecklers with the twin guns of intelligence and sophistication. The words "cult band" are dished out ten a penny, but they truly were a cult. I saw them seven times in the 90s, including the famed Radiohead gig at the 200-capacity Pink Toothbrush in Rayleigh, Essex in October 1992. Heh, I was young then! I spoke to the promoter recently and he told me that despite Radiohead being signed to EMI, he got them to play there for 50 quid.
But I digress: the Sultans never put on a duff show, full of happy memories. They imploded, exploded and split in true rock and roll fashion in 1997 after a quiet couple of years, and I didn't expect my memories to be jolted quite in the manner that they were when I went down to the Windmill in Brixton in February 2005. The gig was a tsunami benefit and one of the bands playing was the above mentioned Abdoujaparov. The other half of Carter, Mr Jim Bob, was also performing, along with London bands Ciccone and Rhesus, but again that's all by the by. I was grabbed by a friend - Marc - who said ... you'll never guess who's just played a gig in Leigh on Sea? The Sultans of Ping! I'm assuming he's already drunk although I suspect he's not. Excuse me ... a band from Cork who split up 8 years ago? Have just played a gig 10 miles from my house with no publicity mentioned? Erm, no, I don't believe it. Marc was pretty sure that's what had happened. He gave me the name of the pub - the Ship - and I rang them straight away. They didn't know anything about it, but they gave me the names of some of the other bands that played the same night.
One of them, Fiction, I knew and I rang up Katie, the singer. Oh yeah, the Sultans of Ping, what a great bunch of guys! I got in touch with the promoter of the event. It turned out to be another tsunami fundraiser, put together by Warren, who turned out to be a former tour manager of the Sultans. The truth was that the Sultans hadn't reformed - but Niall had been persuaded to come down and sing a few Sultans songs. Warren, knowing all the stuff, filled in on the guitar and Jamiroquai's drummer was there as well - now there's a supergroup for you. As a result of the conversations, the band had been offered to tour Ireland later that year. In April this year, it was confirmed and tickets went on sale. No UK dates - where they still had a big fanbase - were in the pipeline.
I wasn't too bothered, because Warren had tipped me off to tell me that they would play a warm up gig in Essex in November. The suggested venue was Westcliff but this didn't go ahead in the end. I know the guys who run the Fat Surfer club night at the Working Men's Club in Grays - a hidden gem indeed, a 250-capacity venue with cheap beer and an awesome 10K sound system. I spoke to Morty, who suggested that a warm up there would be a good idea and as long as the venue covered its costs, he wouldn't worry about a percentage or fixed fee since it was just a warm up - very generous of him since we had no idea how many people would be interested in seeing the band again after such a long gap. There wasn't much to worry about - we sold 70 tickets in the first 2 days, and the remainder went in a couple of weeks. This was done with no press - apart from a half page on Teletext's Planet Sound (thanks John) - all the buzz was generated from one Sultans little-used message board.
Supporting bands The Dirty Fairies – a sort of a stoner-rock/Hendrixy band from Essex – and iDou (featuring Les Carter and Richie Crockford from the twice-aforementioned Abdoujaparov) – both came and went and the Sultans did their thing, and they didn’t disappoint.
The gig’s over, everyone was happy – fans, venue, band – and I’ve got some Irish shows to look forward to in December and the possibility that this might be less of a one-off and there could be some more UK shows in 2006 some time. In the meantime, I can start digging out my weird, wonderful, and not so weird and wonderful MP3s for everyone.
Well done for staying awake anyway. A musical accompaniment to the previous 1500 words can be located right here:
I was at the Gig when Radiohead supported them in the King Edwards no.8 in Birmingham. Me and my mate Phillip Hannah were 15/16 at the time and had come from wrexham to see Sultans. Every other fucker in the gig was a student and sat down for the support bands while we did stupid dancing at the front. Phil became the 19th person on Radioheads mailing list and I became the 20th. So this is just a bit of a fuck you to all the twats that sat down for Radiohead then bragged about seeing them when they became big.....