The Sultans of Ping FC at Whelan’s, 10 December 2016
For a generation of Irish music fans who grew up after the band had quit making new music, the Sultans of Ping FC are a bit of a hard one to size up. For many, they’re little more than a joke band with one mad single about losing a jumper. While it’s probably true that the Sultans didn’t have the same staying power as some of their late ‘80s/ early ‘90s contemporaries who remain both familiar and influential, the relegation of the Sultans to this kind of one note novelty is a great injustice against an act as musically inventive as it was utterly bonkers.
This could have something to do with the fact that, approaching the Sultans in 2016, it’s hard to even tell what kind of band they were. They were a variation of pop punk before anybody was talking about pop punk. Their lyrics were highly literate nonsense. They don’t quite fit in any box you might try to put them in.
Following a parting of ways in 1996, the band got back together in the mid-2000s. It’d be easy to write this off as little more than a tribute to past glories, since the reunion consists primarily of the odd show here and there, with setlists consisting entirely of music from their ‘90s heyday, in particular their fantastically named debut LP ‘Casual Sex in the Cineplex’. Once the Sultans actually hit the stage though, all justification for their continued existence becomes immediately self-evident.
Here’s the scene: A sold-out Whelan’s waits for things to kick off. The musicians slowly emerge and take up their position on stage. Vocalist Niall O’Flaherty strides out with a beer in one hand and a full bottle of whiskey under each arm. He’s wearing a pair of stupid looking sunglasses, glittery trousers and a frilly shirt, and it’s impossible to tell if he’s taking the piss out of a disckish rockstar persona or if he really means it.
O’Flaherty produces a shot glass from somewhere, pours himself a measure whiskey and knocks it back. Then the band launch into Back in a Tracksuit: a sweeping rock number with oodles of bass and even more attitude. The Sultans lash through their fiery opener in a couple of minutes and follow up with something even faster – Teenage Punks. Than a shouty, rowdy rendition of Give Him a Ball – arguably the greatest song ever written about the beautiful game. There’s enough punk energy flowing that the question of whether the Sultans are messing around or not ceases to matter. These tracks just work in a setting like this one, and the Sultans possess excess amounts of what it takes to put on a good show.
A lot of this is down to O’Flaherty, who leaps about the stage with unrelenting intensity. Fanning the flames of this raucous energy is the sheer bloody ridiculousness of the lyrics. At some point he ditches the sunglasses, which allows him to fix individual members of the audience with a wide-eyed, unblinking stare. “We’ve got a song for every mood,” he tells the crowd. “You give us a mood and we’ll give you a song.”
From somewhere in front of the stage somebody yells “Sublime” at him.
“Sublime?” says O’Flaherty. He confers with his band. “Okay, we’ll give you sublime.”
The Sultans launch into Mescaline. It is loud, punkish and chaotic. Not really sublime by most definitions of the word, but more than appropriate for the moment.
The crowd get a bit of a breather on slower numbers like Two Pints of Raza and Let’s Go Shopping – two disarmingly endearing tacks about pleasures so simple that they too could easily be written off as joke songs, were they not delivered with such convincing earnestness. It’s a celebration of the kind of subjects that are too insignificant to write a proper song about, rather than a mocking. And it maybe this detail, more than anything else, that keeps the Sultans above being a simple joke.
When the Sultans return to the Whelan’s mainstage for an encore a large portion of the audience sit down on the ground and rock in unison from side to side as O’Flaherty croons about a fish and a whale that like to listen to The Sultans of Ping on Turnip Fish. It’s all nonsense, or at least it should be, but somehow it just feels right.
By time it reaches “we’ve got one more tune for you” time, there isn’t really any doubt as to what’s coming up. But when O’Flaherty practically screams out the opening lines: “My – brother – knows – Karl Marx” they do exactly what they are intended and kick things into a whole new gear. There’s a reason this song was popular, and it’s not just because everyone was laughing at it. It’s because it’s a solid banger.
It’s hard to say how long the Sultans of Ping will keep on doing their thing. But as long as they keep on doing shows like this, they’ve got every reason not to pack it in just yet.