AROUND 2012, dubs of an unreleased album made the rounds in tastemaker circles before finally reaching Smog Veil Records, a boutique record label. The music went unheard by the artist for decades until his former guitarist played it back to him, but the original was soon found in the vault of a Hollywood sound designer. In 2016, Smog Veil released the album, “French Pictures in London”, by the Robert Bensick Band, as part of its Platters du Cuyahoga series of lost recordings from Cleveland. Much better late than never.

The album, recorded in Cleveland in 1975, is no ordinary rock n’ roll nugget. It’s a missing link in the prehistory of Rust Belt avant-garde rock. Cleveland’s weirdo 1970s rockers, the electric eels and Rocket from the Tombs, are often cited as Midwestern forefathers of American out-of-bounds rock, spawning Pere Ubu and the Dead Boys, and influencing the likes of Devo and the Ramones. But “French Pictures in London” paints a very different picture of the scene on Lake Erie, of communal living and boundary-pushing music just outside the spotlight. Rather than snarling proto-punk, we hear an ambitious singer songwriter sketching stories using the entire studio as his palette—freely combining genres. 

Startlingly sophisticated, it masterfully skates across jazz, lounge, pop and avant-garde with louche attitude, and would fit in nicely alongside  Nick Cave and Roxy Music. Mr Bensick exhibits flashes of chameleonic charm as he delivers moody and wry street poetry on “8:30 PM Victoria Haze” and “After the Ball.” On “Night Life” he captures the fifteen-minutes-of-music-scene fame with advice for the newcomer: “Times as they are, you just might be a star, fake it if you have to.” “Doll” closes the album with a blast of future and electronic noise. It’s an album of art rock that while played and recorded with obvious care, feels genuinely unhinged as a result of its creator’s wild-eyed delivery. The album makes a case that Cleveland hasn’t been given its due as the place where art and guitars came together in fascinating ways while the rest of America was dozing off to the soothing sounds of soft rock. 

An obsessive musician from a young age, Mr Bensick played the drums in The Munx, a bubblegum group, The Bridge and Sheffield Rush, two psychedelic bands, and Hy Maya, an experimental band influenced by free jazz. He also studied sculpture at Cleveland State University, and worked in visual merchandising at a department store before recession and unemployment hit. Restless and ambitious, he began writing songs, seeing that pop was expanding its artistic possibilities. “When I saw David Bowie hit, I was impressed. I could give up the way-out music for this. This is artful. A good pop song is a nice little contemporary piece of art,” he tells Prospero.

Unemployment gave him time to sit and simply observe. He lived in the Plaza, an artists’ commune with an aura of fading luxury. “Cleveland was the American Liverpool. It was the same trip, man. It was a burned-out rust belt. No one could find jobs…All I did was watch them daily, drink with them, smoke pot with them, bed them and got the stories,” he says. The stories of characters from “French Pictures” like Lilly White and Sweet Priscilla conjure the aftermath of acid and Vietnam protests, over a soundscape delivered by a band that conjures a deranged Steely Dan. The album looks at the world between the Summer of Love and the birth of punk, as seen from the Midwest. 

In 1975, an A&M Records label executive fishing for the next big thing sent Mr Bensick $5,000 to record some demos, with no contract. Never one to do anything halfway, he leapt into recording a magnum opus, booked a pricey studio favoured by the likes of Todd Rundgren, and enlisted the best musicians he could find while contributing guitar, flute, and synthesiser parts himself. An art-student friend’s acquisition of some antique French pornography while studying abroad inspired the title.

The label cut Mr Bensick loose before the album was finished. He wrangled a copy of his master tapes from the studio. But his guitarist and his drummer moved on to their own group, Pere Ubu, the iconic Cleveland art-punk act of the era. Mr Bensick turned to Eric Carmen of the Raspberries, who he hoped would get the master tape to the ears of a record-label executive. But it was passed instead to a DJ, then a keyboard shop owner, Alan Howarth, who later became the Hollywood sound guru in whose basement the master tapes languished. 

Shortly after "French Pictures", Mr Bensick learned that his girlfriend was pregnant, and put his rock star dreams on hold. He made an unreleased follow-up album before he quit the stage for good. Decades later, Mr Bensick happened to reconnect with Mr Howarth, who encouraged him to write a screenplay about his life just as new interest was building in releasing the record. Fortunately, Mr Howarth had preserved the tape. 

Today, Mr Bensick is 66 is lives in Florida where he brews his own kombucha. He’s just released his debut album.