The Del Fuegos

Did they burn out or did they rust? Did they sell out or did they cash in? Did they jump or were they pushed? When it comes to The Del Fuegos’ fast-forward rise and slow-motion fall, these questions are debatable but one thing is not: During their 15 minutes of fame in the mid-80s, they were a rollicking example of deftly crafted bare-bones power pop at its punchiest and most passionate.

A no-frills cocktail of irresistible melodies, rockabilly-twinged roots-rock, cocksure stage presence and raucous live shows, the tight-as-a-fist quartet was a short-lived next-generation J. Geils Band of sorts, flipping the proverbial bird at other garage-born acts of the era like The Romantics (Detroit), The Plimsouls (Los Angeles), BoDeans (Milwaukee), The Hooters (Philadelphia) and The Del-Lords (New York) while screaming, “Boston kicks ass the hahdest!”

Formed in 1980 by New Hampshire-born brothers Dan and Warren Zanes – then age 19 and 16, both guitarists with Dan also on lead vocals – plus bassist Tom Lloyd, Dan’s high-school classmate, and drummer Steve Morrell, The Del Fuegos built a cult following by gigging in warehouses, art galleries, barns, dining halls, frat houses, gyms, auditoriums, bars and clubs before gaining broader attention in June 1983 when they reached the semifinals at the WBCN Rock ‘n’ Roll Rumble, held that year at Spit and Metro in Boston and won by ‘Til Tuesday

Between 1984 and 1989, the band released four studio albums – achieving critics’-darling status with the first two – and one live record, headlined tours of the US, Canada and Europe, opened for Tom Petty, INXS, The Replacements, the Kinks and ZZ Top and – in what some considered money-grubbing and career-killing – starred in a 1985 television commercial for Miller High Life beer.

In 1984, after beginning to record an album on Boston-based indie label Ace of Hearts Records, The Del Fuegos signed with LA-based indie label Slash and released their debut, The Longest Day, which received almost unanimous critical acclaim for its ripping riffs, raw emotion and snidely acerbic attitude, winning them Rolling Stone magazine’s “Best New Band” award and putting them on the launch pad to major stardom. 

In 1985, after Woody Giessmann of the Kansas-based punk group the Embarrassment had replaced Morrell on drums, the group released its next album, Boston, Mass., which – despite glowing reviews and decent radio and MTV airplay of the singles “Don’t Run Wild” and “I Still Want You” – didn’t meet Slash’s expectations. Later that year, the band released a live album, Spin Radio Concert, recorded at The Spirit Club in San Diego.

Also in 1985, The Del Fuegos starred in a television commercial – famously or infamously, depending on your perspective – for Miller High Life beer in which band members narrated over clips of them touring and on stage, ending with “Miller: Made the American way,” which some fans – “rock ‘n roll purists” or “pretentious hipsters,” depending on your perspective – saw as selling out to corporate interests. Throughout 1985 and 1986, The Del Fuegos toured North America and made appearances across New England at venues including The Rathskellar and The Channel (Boston), Comnock Hall (Lowell), the Providence Performing Arts Center, Providence College, the Providence Civic Center, The Music Hall (Portsmouth), Cumberland County Civic Center (Portland) and the Palace Theatre (New Haven).

In 1987, The Del Fuegos released their most ambitious album, Stand Up, which featured an expanded musical range and a guest appearance by self-confessed fan Tom Petty but which received harsh reviews, minimal support from fans and resulted in Slash axing the group later that year. To support the album, the band toured the US and Europe as an opener for Petty and headlined shows across North America with New England concerts at Riverfront Park (Manchester, NH), The Living Room (Providence) and Massachusetts venues Great Woods (now the Xfinity Center, Mansfield), Babson College (Wellesley) and The MacPhie Pub (Medford).

In 1988, Warren Zanes and Woody Giessmann left the group, replaced by Adam Roth on guitar and drummer Joe Donnelly, and the revised lineup played at the WBCN Rock of Boston Festival in December that year before signing with RCA and releasing their fourth and final LP in 1989, Smoking in the Fields, which was a commercial flop. The band completed a six-city European tour in early 1990 and broke up soon thereafter.

On June 23 and 24, 2011, The Del Fuegos reassembled to play in public together for the first time in 21 years at the Paradise Rock Club in Boston to raise money for Right Turn, a rehab program Giessmann founded in 2003. The shows’ success prompted them to record an eight-song EP, Silver Star, on the February Records label and in February-March 2012 the band did a 10-city tour which started at the Paradise and ended at the Capital Center for the Arts in Concord, New Hampshire.

Asked in 2012 if making the EP and doing the short tour felt like the early days of The Del Fuegos, Dan Zanes nodded and laughed. “Absolutely,” he said. “The not knowing what’s going on, the making a recording where we don’t know what we’re doing. All that stuff feels like the early days of the band. Those were the fun days since it was the most fun when we hadn’t figured any of it out.”

(by D.S. Monahan – May 2022)

Published on March 2, 2013