For Rick Berlin, the glory always comes in bursts accompanied by an expiration date. In his nearly 40 years in the music business, the nine bands Berlin has played in have had varying degrees of success; some of them were painfully close to breaking out; others were destined to be. But regardless of a band’s run, Rick has ridden the thrilling, disappointing and at times volatile waves of his career with a steely resilience, consistently heading back into the surf no matter how many times he ends up in the sand.
Berlin’s music career began serendipitously in 1973. Harry Bee — a music manager — discovered Berlin when he heard Rick’s piano notes drifting down to the street from his apartment window in Somerville, Massachusetts. After meeting Harry, Rick (who still called himself Richard Kinscherf at the time), his sister, Lisa, and friend, Liz Gallagher, began creating material. After putting together a catalog of about 30 songs, the threesome began the search for additional band members. Scott Chambers, a bass player, found the nameless group through an ad posted at Berklee College of Music. Guitar player Randy Roos came from Zircon — a jazz club where Lisa Kinscherf worked. Drummer Don Mulvaney joined shortly thereafter.
Poet Peter Barrett, who provided the spoken word, dubbed the group Orchestra Luna, and provided spoken-word interludes as well. The two girls in the band were deemed “The Lunettes.” With an appetite for all genres, Orchestra Luna began to create theatrical rock music that is still described in the New England Music Scrapbook as “a market niche pretty much defined as Orchestra Luna.”
The song “Doris Dreams,” gives insight to the type of music the band played. The song is an 11-minute operetta about a girl named Doris. After great despair, Doris realizes she is beautiful. Rick describes the song on his website as multi-genre: rock, jazz, Salvation Army band, 30’s girl-group vocals and Swiss operetta. It is over-the-top, strange, vaudevillian and was like nothing in the music industry at the time.
“Doris Dreams” became a signature part of their performance, which they did regularly at Jeremiah’s in Allston, a now-defunct restaurant on Harvard Ave. After only six months, Epic Records had picked up Orchestra Luna. Berlin believes the band was signed because it was an unusual idea that the label thought they could develop over time. (Check out this link to see their first press packet).
Orchestra Luna recorded their self-titled album at Medium Sound in New York, with Rupert Holmes (same producer of “Escape – The Pina Colada Song“) and Jeffery Lesser. The record was released in 1974 and within that year the band began playing bigger venues, such as CBGB’s — a famous New York rock club — and other Boston spots. They opened for bands like the Boomtown Rats, Bryan Ferry, The Weather Report, Roxy Music and Split Enz.
David Minehan is a former rock star of The Neighborhoods and produced three of Berlin’s albums. He remembers being in awe the first time he saw Orchestra Luna at The Rath Skellar, nicknamed“The Rat,” in Kenmore Square. “He was already a rock star to me,” says Minehan.
Orchestra Luna played “Doris Dreams” at Frank Zappa’s 10th Anniversary, at a ballroom congregated with cultural and musical luminaries. Though the room was overflowing with famousness, Berlin was oblivious. “Patti Smith, [Patti] Labelle, James Taylor, Carly Simon, there were all these stars there and I had no idea who they were,” says Rick. Orchestra Luna was an outlier. “We were the ones there that wore white and makeup and looked pretty and silly. We were happy and had no attitude,” he says.
This period of success for Orchestra Luna coincided with the birth of punk-rock music, the anti-thesis to a band like Orchestra Luna. Minehan pointed to the explosion of punk as a reason for the dwindling relevance Orchestra Luna had to the current music scene. “What I saw in Orchestra Luna on the best angle was this great hybrid of prog-rock and theater and daring-do of songwriting suddenly challenged by this incredible revolution of music that was stealing all the headlines,” says Minehan.
Timing was not on Orchestra Luna’s side. Though cultural trendsetters such as Andy Warhol attended shows, after a two-week run at The Little Hippodrome in New York City, Epic dropped the band. Berlin immediately wanted to start another band, but Lisa wanted out, as did Chambers, Mulvaney, and Roos.
I know what you’re thinking: “Did Orchestra Luna continue? Did Berlin quit the business? What happened next? I MUST KNOW!”
Fret not, readers. This is the first installment of four. Come back tomorrow to read more about the evolution of Berlin’s bands. It’s going to be juicy.