Steppin' Out

As we press on toward the new millennium, the retro-bent of pop music in the 1990s may serve a purpose after all. Beyond bell-bottoms and polyester -- and the Bradys who came and went with them -- the decade's counterclockwise musical cravings have looked as far back as cocktail lounge and World War II-era swing for satisfaction. In a sense, modern pop music has at last paid tribute to some of the best parts of a century's music. And, via the eight-piece jump blues band, Atomic Fireballs, Detroit stands ready to add its own swingin' sensibilities into the atavistic mix.

In 1996, Fireballs singer John Bunkley (ex-Gangster Fun) came off a three-year hiatus from music, during which he worked on the art of glassblowing at Greenfield Village and an advanced degree in sociology. He and trumpeter James Bostek had envisioned a modern band that blended ska and reggae sounds with the irrepressible buoyancy of swing and the upbeat emphasis of jump jazz. That materialized when the Atomic Fireballs debuted at the Magic Stick one year ago. The band members who joined Bunkley and Bostek -- Duke Kingins (guitar), Geoff Kinde (drums), Randy "Ginger" Sly (piano), Tony Buccelli (trombone), Shawn Scaggs (upright bass) and Eric Schabo (tenor sax) -- had individually played with a mixed bag of bands including Fugazi, INXS and Bad Brains. The Fireballs' unique offering of untamed, horn-wailing jump-swing was a hit as the band was soon playing sold-out shows across the Midwest and on the East Coast. They brought in listeners of all ages -- from rock venues full of "skankin'" ska kids to a $10-a-martini New York supper club (where Bunkley reportedly drank from his shoe after being told bar glasses were not allowed on the stage).

"We were a bit too wild for the supper club," Bunkley laughs. "At one point we were drawing an older crowd, but now we're getting a younger crowd as well. We played an outdoor festival this past summer and 14-year-olds came out to see us as well as people in their 50s. But it doesn't matter to us if our audience is 80 years old and over. I don't think a lot of bands have such a wide appeal."

The decidedly "rock 'n' roll" approach to old style and tradition works well for the band. Bunkley's onstage dancing gymnastics are nonstop, with all the power and aggression of a punk rock frontman who happens to be wearing a suit and singing swing. So is this a rock 'n' roll band or not?

"Yeah, we are a rock 'n' roll band," Bunkley says. "We are just very much influenced by older styles of music, but all (the band members) are still putting a more contemporary twist on it. We are a combination of people from punk, ska, reggae and rock bands," he explains.

"While the older music is an influence, we aren't really doing that. We are taking everything from '40s and '50s music, '60s soul, '70s and '80s punk, and with those showing people a sort of history of American music and its energy."

For Bunkley, an avid music listener from a very young age, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Public Image Limited, Minor Threat, the Dead Kennedys, Half Japanese, the Fall, the Specials, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong are all just as much a part of the songs he writes as artists such as Cab Calloway, Charlie Parker or Fletcher Henderson.

Bunkley is the Fireballs' main songwriter and he radiates a sort of pre-millennial optimism that's hard to find these days. Perhaps that is part of the magic that makes his music work. The leap from eight years of playing ska with Gangster Fun to the Atomic Fireballs may be a big one stylistically, but the common raucous attitude and pursuit of bliss through music remains intact. Bunkley's singing -- often compared to the gravel-throated Dickey Barret from the Bosstones (by the kids) and Redding or Armstrong (by the grown-ups) -- is charged enough to match the traditional tinge and high emotional pitch of Fireballs songs like "Swing Sweet Pussycat," "Catfish Ball" and "Caviar & Chitlins." In person, there's no doubt that Bunkley calls to mind Armstrong's infamous smile and complementary demeanor.

"A lot of people were critical of Louie because of that," he says. "I think Miles Davis had said something about it. But I think Louie smiled and carried himself that way because he was happy," says Bunkley.

"The best comments I get about the band are from people who say they came in really down and left the show happy. We're a party band. We just want to get out and dance as hard as we can -- till our legs wobble."

The Fireballs may be reaching into the past, but their arrival on the music scene appears to be right on time. The band released a self-titled EP last year on their own label (they're currently in the studio working on their debut full-length) and recently joined forces with a talent agent in the Ann Arbor area and are now navigating major label waters.

Along with bands like the Cherry Poppin' Daddies -- who are enjoying lots of radio play with their spirited single "Zoot Suit Riot" -- and the Squirrel Nut Zippers, Detroit's new kings of swing may be the latest answer to a manic-depressive music industry-audience that is always waiting for some genius to come along and change its mood.

"We aren't doing this to respond to a trend," says Bunkley. "If I wanted to, I could play electronic music or whatever. But that isn't the music I am into right now. People do need an outlet. Even a band like Hanson or the Spice Girls are filling something in someone. I think it just comes down to choices. And the more choices people have, the more chances they have for happiness." Frequent Metro Times music writer and columnist Norene Cashen is busying herself writing the perfect genre-crossover artist profile. You can reach her at

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