Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Robert Bensick's lost 70s Cleveland underground epic out June 24 on Smog Veil

Years before Berlin West, Cleveland's Robert Bensick was bringing together local luminaries for his magnum opus.  

In the Summer of 1975, Cleveland multi-instrumentalist, sculptor, and artist Robert Bensick – who had previously been the drummer of Ohio teen garage crew The Munx – brought together the best of the Cleveland underground and recorded an album at Agency Recording, a studio favored by such recording stars as Todd Rundgren.

The studio band Bensick assembled for the record included such luminaries as Tom Herman (Pere Ubu), Scott Krauss (Pere Ubu/ Cinderella Backstreet/Home & Garden), Cynthia Black (Cinderella Backstreet/Peter & The Wolves), Albert Dennis (Cinderella Backstreet/Wolves), and Michael Hronek (a collaborator of Cleveland proto-punk legend Peter Laughner). Bensick’s magnum opus sought to bring music and art together into a brand new experience. The end result – French Pictures In London - was so far ahead of its time that it remained unreleased for forty years, languishing in the vault of a noted Hollywood soundtrack composer and sound designer...until now.

French Pictures In London is a story of real people and the infamous Plaza Apartments as filtered through art, poetry, pop, krautrock, and 1970’s Cleveland. It is an album that the late Peter Laughner had a dominant effect upon (despite not participating in the sessions). The album’s sound and mood is also a precursor to the New Romantic movement of groups such as Visage and Spandau Ballet as well as the direction Roxy Music would take on albums such as Manifesto (1979). French Pictures In London similarly touches upon the darker corners of rock and pop such as those found on Scott Walker’s subversive Climate of Hunter (1984), Oxbow’s brutal and troubling The Narcotic Story (2007), and the delicate yet unsettling undercurrents that transpire on L’Amour by Lewis (1983).

French Pictures In London was recorded with the promise of a record contract with A&M (not as strange as it may seem since A&M also signed John Cale, Magma, Yellow Magic Orchestra, and the Sex Pistols at various times) and the hope for a national tour to follow. Eventually, the album ended up in the hands of Alan Howarth (later an Academy Award-winning sound effects creator, sound designer, and soundtrack composer) where thankfully it remained in his archives, turning out to be one of the two surviving copies of something Bensick thought he had lost forever.

The missing musical piece of Cleveland that falls in between the four long players by Raspberries and the first three albums by Pere Ubu. From the Nick Drake-meets-Nick Cave melodrama of “Sweet Pricilla”, the Roxy Music-isms of “Lilly White”, the heavily Herbie Hancock- influenced desperation of “Night Life”, to the Broadway letdown of “Cinquain Attempted” and the completely unhinged “Doll”, French Pictures In London is an album that will surely turn on any listener who approaches it.

A few years after the French Pictures In London project, Bensick formed the synth duo Berlin West with Kathleen Bensick which resulted in a 1981 darkwave single Snakepit b/w Babylon that unfortunately isn't included as part of Smog Veil's reissue package. However, because Bensick had the record manufactured at Cleveland's famed pressing plant Boddie Recording Company,  Numero Group decided to add the song Snakepit to their Boddie retrospective Local Customs: Pressed At Boddie from 2011, which turned out to be one of the most interesting recordings on the somewhat random 17-track sampling of the company's extensive output.

Bensick eventually moved to New York and by the mid-1980s had stopped performing in public but never stopped creating and continues to do so to this very day. The release of French Pictures In London represents long overdue credit and recognition, and a landmark recording in the long history of Cleveland rock and roll.

Extensive liner notes by Nick Blakey and never before published photos are also included in Smog Veil's release of French Pictures In London available for pre-order from the label right here. Listen to The Robert Bensick Band's Lily White and Berlin West's Snakepit below followed by a brief interview with Bensick from 2014.

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