The Atomic Fireballs
The Atomic Fireballs
The Atomic Fireballs were one of several 1990s bands that helped rekindle American swing or jump blues, which peaked in popularity during the mid-1930s through the 1940s. Artists such as Cab Galloway and Duke Ellington defined the genre’s golden age. Like other “neo swing” groups, including the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, Royal Crown Revue, and the Brian SetzerOrchestra, the Atomic Fireballs from Detroit, Michigan, came from another musical realm. While the above mentioned groups infused their music with hints of rock and roll, the Atomic Fireballs brought something more to their style of jump blues, namely the onstage energy and musical influences of ska and punk music.
Some modern swing fans say that the Atomic Fireballs aren’t really “swing” at all, claiming that the group plays too fast for them to dance to the songs. However, lead singer John Bunkley refused to let such criticisms stand in his way, as he told John Farinella in a Launch.com: Discover New Music website feature story. “Basically it’s too bad if the swing dancers don’t accept us, because we never really got together for them, we got together for us.” Therefore, although the swing revival seemed just another passing fad by the end of the 1990s, the Atomic Fireballs, armed with their own version of the jump blues, were just heating up. After releasing a self-produced album in 1997 entitled Axen (distributed by Steeple Chase), the band embarked on their first national tour and released Birth of the Swerve on the independent label Orbital in 1998. Their major-label debut, Don’tTorch This Place, arrived in 1999 on Lava, a subsidiary of Atlantic Records.
Lead singer Bunkley and jazz trumpeter James Bostek formed the group in Detroit in 1996, hiring guitarist Duke Kingins, drummer Geoff Kinde, trombone player Randy “Ginger” Sly, upright bassist Shawn Scaggs, and tenor saxophonist Eric Schabo to complete the lineup. Neither of the two knew much about the swing craze at the time; Bunkley, for one, had been a member of a ska band called Gangster Fun that had just broken up, while Bostek had substantial training in jazz. Nevertheless, they set out to take the jumping blues of the 1940s and bring it up to date with a more contemporary element. They borrowed ideas from the music of groups such as Funkadelic, Fishbone, X, Minor Threat, the Dead Kennedys, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and INXS to figure into their overall sound.
Because the Atomic Fireballs used punk, ska, and rock and roll as influences, they never intended to fit into the same category as the other swing revivalists. “We were just trying to put some roots-rock band together, so we always approached it with a harder edge,” Bunkley explained to Farinella. “Everyone started putting us in the swing genre, so we checked it out and saw whatthe other bands were doing show-wise. I was like, ‘Well, we sweat a lot more than them.’ We don’t care how neat we are onstage.”
The band started performing in public in 1997 after releasing Axen, with their first show scheduled for Valentine’s Day of that year. Moreover, the event was highly publicized around Detroit, and several members of the press were in attendance. Adding to the pressure also included the fact that the Atomic Fireballs never had prior opportunity to perfect their live act, as they were set to headline the concert. “At our first gig there were a lot of people and we had to be on our toes,” Bunkley told Farinella.
Despite the group’s nervousness, their energetic show struck a chord with the audience that night, and before long, the group piled into a beat-up 15-passenger van to take their music to towns across the Midwest. Playing in clubs and converting fans from Chicago, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and their hometown, the Atomic Fireballs’s popularity swelled, and the band accepted an offer to make a record with the independent label Orbital. Released in 1998 and produced by Charlie Baby, dB, and the Atomic Fireballs, Birth of the Swerve captured the recording birth of the newest rock/jump blues band to step into the swing scene at the time. Five songs from the album would show up on the group’s subsequent album.
Members include John Bunkley (former member of Gangster Fun), vocals; James Bostek (studied jazz), trumpet; Duke Kingins, guitar; Geoff Kinde, drums; Randy “Ginger” Sly, trombone; Shawn Scaggs, upright bass; Eric Shabo, tenor saxophone.
Released debut Axen, SteepleChase, 1997; performed for the fist time in public on Valentine’s Day, 1997; released Birth of the Swerve on Orbital, 1998; toured the U.S., performed with the Vans Warped Tour, 1998; released first album with Lava/Atlantic, Torch This Place, 1999.
Addresses: Home —Detroit, MI. Record company —Atlantic Recording Corp., 1290 Avenue of the Americas, New York City, NY 10104, (212) 707-2000, fax (212) 405-5507.
The same year, the Atomic Fireballs embarked on their first national tour of the United States. They also performed as part of the Vans Warped Tour, a concert series formed in 1995 featuring bands playing a range of music from metal and punk to progressive hip-hop and swing. Considered a catalyst for propelling bands to greater fame, the Warped Tour boasted future well-known outfits such as No Doubt, Sublime, Limp Bizkit, and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. In addition to music, the festivities at the concert events included skateboarding, BMX bike racing contests, and famous snowboarders.
Amid the atmosphere of skateboarders and surfers, the Atomic Fireballs said they felt right at home. “It was really fun to play right before or after [the hard-core, San Francisco Bay area punk band] Rancid. Those people gave us our shakes, man. They looked at us in the first couple songs and then their heads started bobbing,” Bunkley recalled to Farinella. “By the end they asked for more. I take that as a great compliment.” During the band’s own tour of the southern United States, the Atomic Fireballs received compliments as well. After one performance, a couple of African American women approached Bunkley, telling the 140-pound singer that they thought the group had a lot of soul. “They told me I could dance and I could sing, and they said Those white boys in your band can dance and sing, too.’ They might not have much soul offstage, but when you put a mic or horn in their hands… That’s where it all counts.”
After proving that the Atomic Fireballs could appeal to a variety of audiences rather than exclusively to swing enthusiasts, the band received several offers from big-label record companies. Signing with Lava/Atlantic, the band worked with producer Bruce Fairbairn to release the twelve-track album Torch This Placein the late spring of 1999. The release captured the excitement of the group’s live performances with authenticity and received overwhelming support from critics and fans alike. For example, Gary Graff concluded in Music Hound Swing!: The Essential Album Guide that “tracks such as ‘Spanish Fly,’ ‘Caviar & Chillins,’ ‘Mata Hari,’ and ‘Man With the Hex’ will give any Brian Setzer or Cherry Poppin’ Daddy a run for his money.”
Backed by their promising new release, the band left Detroit for another national tour, where they enjoyed seeing sights they had never seen before. Bunkley especially admired the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico, as well as the Cadillac Ranch in Texas. The Atomic Fireballs also made their first television appearance, performing their upbeat interchanges on the Late Night with Conan O’Brien Show.
Axen, SteepleChase, 1997.
Birth of the Swerve, Orbital, 1998.
Torch This Place, Lava/Atlantic, 1999.
Knopper, Steve, editor, MusicHound Swing!: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 1999.
Billboard, April 17, 1999, p. 14.
University Wire, June 1, 1999.
“The Atomic Fireballs Great Balls of Fire,” Launch: Discover New Music, http://www.launch.com, (June 18, 1999).
Modern Music Showcase —The Atomic Fireballs, http://www.imusic.com/showcase/modern/atomicfireballs.html, (October 14, 1999).
"The Atomic Fireballs." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 13, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/atomic-fireballs
"The Atomic Fireballs." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved February 13, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/atomic-fireballs
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