The Robert Bensick Band
French Pictures in London
You hear stories like this all the time. A promising artist is signed to a major label and sent off to demo an album. By the time the album is done, the record label has moved on to other interests and the recording is forgotten. That’s basically what happened to Robert Bensick’s album, French Pictures in London. The original idea was that A&M records were going to release the record back in 1975. That didn’t happen. Life moved on and Robert Bensick never became the pop star he might have. It happens all the time.
Why should we care about a forgotten 40 year old album by someone we’ve never heard of? Well, aside from the fact that it’s a pretty interesting record, it also offers a glimpse into the nascent Cleveland rock scene. Bob Bensick was one of the people making things happen in an industrial town, far from the places cool music was being made. He was a friend and rival of Peter Laughner, who helmed the Mirrors, Rocket from the Tombs and the initial incarnation of Pere Ubu. While Laughner is seen as inspirational to the emerging Cleveland art punk scene, this recording shows another side to that influential developing music scene. Bensick describes the songs on French Pictures in London as inspired and about the people who lived at the Plaza. This is the apartment building owned by future Pere Ubu synthesis, Alan Ravenstine. When Bensick lived there, it was the home to a who’s how of Cleveland musos.
While bands like the Electric Eels, Mirrors and early Pere Ubu can easily be called proto-punk; the sounds on French Pictures in London are very different. Bensick incorporates jazz phrasing in a way that recalls Steely Dan from around the same period. There is also a lush, romantic quality that calls to mind Roxy Music. Bensick, however, sounds decidedly more unhinged that these influences, there are times when his vocals sound like he’s about to tip over into “They’re Coming to Take Me Away”. “Payphone Meter Lover” is a really strange unrequited love song that sounds like the singer is possibly a stalker.
For a 40-year-old recording that was essentially a demo, the sound is spectacular. “Night Life” is a jazz influenced tune that has a free form guitar solo from Tom Herman (Pere Ubu) running through out. I’m constantly being surprised by the way Bensick balances restrained, pop elements with odd synth and mellotron textures, weird guitar lines, and warped lyrical content. The title track “French Pictures” were vintage porn brought back from London by one of the Plaza residents. “Sweet Priscilla” is a love song, probably to one of the prostitutes who worked in the neighborhood. It’s restrained, refined, weirdness. The band that created French Pictures in London dissolved even before A&M dropped the project. Tom Herman and Scott Krause moved on to Pere Ubu. Without being able to release his album, Bensick made a few more attempts to get a band on the road before life got in the way. Now, a lifetime later, French Pictures in London is finally surfacing, shedding light on a corner of Cleveland music history that had been all but forgotten.