Ahead of his new RTÉ 2XM documentary Dancing in the Disco, as well a pair of homecoming dates, Paul McDermott celebrates Cork indie-rock legends The Sultans of Ping.


"There's been a great deal about them in the music weeklies and the magazines," said the BBC’s John Peel introducing the session that The Sultans of Ping had recorded for his radio show in March 1992. "This leads me to hope they won’t be this month’s amusing novelty, because it would be a great pity if they were, worth better than that I think."

Peel’s position was my starting point while producing Dancing in the Disco, my documentary about the band. For many Where’s Me Jumper?, the band’s debut single, is just that: an amusing novelty, a one-hit-wonder. For others The Sultans of Ping, as Peel contested, are much better than that. They are one of the greatest live bands this country has ever produced. Dancing in the Disco is their story.

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Pat O’Connell, guitarist with The Sultans of Ping, has a vivid memory of hearing the first playback of their debut single Where’s Me Jumper? "We got the final mix of it up and we played it, we just thought this is going to be massive. It’s not really even a moment you can talk about. We just knew it was going to be a massive hit."

"We didn’t really know what was coming, but we knew this was going to be a very big deal and it was going to be a fantastic time. There’s nothing stopping it, it’s just all going to flow for the next two, three years. I definitely didn’t think I’d be looking back on it in thirty years’ time, that’s a bit more than I had expected."

Where's Me Jumper? was released in January 1992 on Rhythm King Records, a small British record label that at the time was best known for hits by S’Express and Bomb the Bass. It got radio support from the BBC’s John Peel, and climbed to No. 8 in the UK Indie Charts. Here, it received enthusiastic support from 2FM’s Larry Gogan reaching No. 8 in the Irish Chart. Ultimately it was the biggest selling Irish single of 1992 – outselling (Everything I Do) I Do it For You by Bryan Adams.

Over the last 30 years the song has seeped into the pop culture firmament. It’s been used to soundtrack television (Moone Boy, Graham Norton’s Holding, The Masked Singer) and film (The Young Offenders). It has even been played on that great British broadcasting institution Desert Island Discs. "I’ve no idea what it’s about," said guest Lily Allen. "It’s just a fun, jump up, anarchic, ridiculous song that’s about losing your jumper."

Then Niall O’Flaherty’s familiar rap, "My brother knows Karl Marx" came blaring out of the speaker and as the song faded presenter Kirsty Young said with astonishment, "Well that was a first for Desert Island Discs."

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The song kick-started a rollercoaster couple of years for the band. They toured nonstop playing a couple of hundred gigs a year. They played all over the world, from Cork to Hiroshima. "We were innocent, we didn't have a clue," remembers drummer Morty McCarthy. "Cork was an insular city doing its own thing. We kept that innocence for a long, long time. Naive if you want, but it got us a long way."

Three albums were released and their fourth single You Talk Too Much reached No. 26 in the UK Singles Chart. Memorably the video for the single was shown on Top of the Pops the same night as fellow Corkonians The Frank & Walters performed on the programme, the pride on Leeside was indescribable.

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Q Magazine called Casual Sex in the Cineplex, the band’s debut album, "hugely enjoyable, intelligent fun." The NME declared, "Brilliant enough on record, The Sultans of Ping are essentially a live experience, with the emphasis on essential." Niall O’Flaherty, the band’s singer agrees. "For us it was always about the live show. That’s the band we were, we were a live band."

"I would borrow, steal anything I could to improve the show. It was never that difficult to me and I think it's because we never had to do the really hard stuff of playing to totally cold audiences and winning them over. We started with a little following straight away in Cork."

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O’Connell also thinks that live performance was the strongest point of the band. "The key thing about the band was playing gigs," he says. "People would go to the concerts, it was at a time probably when there was a lot of standing around shoegazing, people just not really being involved on stage, and The Sultans was a very different experience and people really responded to it physically and emotionally."

The band stopped playing Where's Me Jumper? in their live sets around 1995. They had written and recorded better songs but couldn’t shake the attention of their biggest hit – it had become a millstone. Their third album, Good Year for Trouble, was harder sounding than its predecessors but it didn’t get the commercial response that was needed to keep the show on the road. The Sultans decided to call it a day in 1997.

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The lads settled into domestic life, started new careers and promptly forgot about the music industry. An online fan community kept the Sultans name alive and in 2005 the band was coaxed out of retirement. The Sultans now get invited to perform at Indie Festivals and now and again they'll headline their own gig. When they do fans travel from far and wide. The gigs are still great - chaotic, exciting and brilliant fun. O’Flaherty has also made peace with the band’s biggest hit and 'Where’s Me Jumper?’ is back in the setlist. "You’d think that I hate the song, I suppose, but I don’t, actually," he says. "You know, I’m pretty proud of it. I really like it. I love hearing that it’s popped up somewhere.

Dancing in the Disco – the story of The Sultans of Ping will be broadcast on RTÉ 2XM on Monday 06 February at 6 pm and repeated on Saturday 11 February at 3 pm.

The Sultans of Ping play Cork Opera House on 10 February and 11 February, in celebration of the 30th anniversary of Casual Sex in the Cineplex.