Godflesh Streetcleaner: My 33 1/3 Book Proposal

June 01st, 2012 | Category: About, Book Stuff

I proposed a book for Bloomsbury Academic’s 33 1/3 Series on Streetcleaner by Godflesh. This being one of my all-time favorite records by one of my all-time favorite bands, I really wanted to tell its story. I knew it was a long shot: Bloomsbury received 471 proposals in this round and are planning on publishing a mere twenty titles. Today they narrowed the pile to a “long list” of ninety-four, and mine was not one of them. So, in lieu of the book, here is the Sample Material and Table of Contents from my proposal. Enjoy!

GODFLESH Streetcleaner (Earache Records, 1989)

“It’s just a matter of time, for me, before our ultimate extinction, and I can’t say we don’t deserve it.”1 This quote from Justin K. Broadrick sums up quite a lot of his motivation as an artist. His prolific career involving countless bands and projects spans over three decades. But it also says a lot about what many would call his most important band and their most important record. That band is Godflesh, and that record is Streetcleaner. “I don’t have a very optimistic view of humanity,” Broadrick said in the early 1990s, not long after Streetcleaner had been unleashed on the world. “Eighty percent of it is shit, and as a whole, mankind is very weak and without any kind of purpose. Once in a while, people need to be crushed emotionally and intellectually to be reminded of reality. That’s the basic purpose of our music…”2 Rebelling against their backgrounds and the very metal scene that spawned them, Broadrick says, “[W]ith Godflesh we were like, fuck everyone. And that was obviously cultivated even further to make an album like Streetcleaner.”3

In the late 1980s, metal was fast and heavy. The underground was ruled and regulated by thrash, death metal, and grindcore, each with its own set of stringent rules and rabid fans. Today’s wildly popular black metal was still in its infancy. Godflesh’s debut was sluggish in comparison, and they used a drum machine instead of a live drummer, anathema in the stodgy metal underground. “For at least the first year that we played,” Broadrick remembers, “there were people chanting, ‘Where’s the drummer?’ or ‘You’re too fucking slow!’”4 Their initial reception was not promising, but as Broadrick put it at the time, “It’s got a sound, and it’s unique. And it’s fucking heavy.”5

When Godflesh’s first full-length record came out on November 13, 1989, I was just out of high school. In an issue of SPIN Magazine at the time, Faith No More’s Mike Patton described Streetcleaner as the sound of your Walkman’s batteries running down. That was enough of an endorsement for me to seek out the record. As well versed as I was in the metal of the time, what I found was like nothing I’d ever heard. Streetcleaner plods along at the pace of some giant factory, guitars and bass pummeling to the sound of machines rumbling. “Godflesh is totally borne from those first twenty four years of my life that I spent in Birmingham,” Broadrick remembers. The bleak, industrial environs of Birmingham gave birth to other dark, heavy, canonical outfits like Black Sabbath and Judas Priest. The oppression of being “amongst crowds of people, being surrounded by concrete,” as he puts it, shaped who Broadrick is, and the way he expresses it. “To me, I don’t think Godflesh would have existed if I’d come from another environment. It’s absolutely a reflection of the environment that I grew up in.”6 The overall sound is simply crushing, and Streetcleaner is a genre-defying and a genre-defining record. In fact, the newly reunited Godflesh performed the record in its entirety at Holland’s Roadburn Festival last year, illustrating its lasting influence. “It is an angsty record written by a couple of teenagers,” he said of the performance, “and it still resonates now. In fact, even more so, to some extent.”7

“With Godflesh, we try to aim at something quite off balance, off kilter, a lot different from anyone else,”8 he told me in 1996. Since its inception, Godflesh has been Broadrick and Christian “Benny” Green with their drum machine, and as strange as it may seem for a band as heavy as Godflesh is, hip-hop has been an obvious element in their overall sound. “I think hip-hop is more important than any sort of rock music,” stated Broadrick matter-of-factly. “Most of the beats are fatter and heavier than your average rock n’ roll riff.” One of the major sonic tenets of Godflesh is that under the monolithic basslines and ear-searing guitar riffs lie hip-hop’s most brutal break beats. Not realizing what a total hip-hop head Justin is, people tend to miss the often low-key references to the genre in Godflesh’s music. “I’ve done lots of interviews with these metal magazines and they’re really confronted by the hip-hop thing like, ‘what the fuck is this?!’ They really don’t get it that I’m really into hip-hop.”9 The next year, Broadrick was even more frustrated with trying to shed Godflesh’s metal skin: “All of these metal magazines are so pissed off at the way that metal has been treated that they don’t even want to take a look at something like hip-hop,” he told me. “I try to stress to them that I’ve always hated metal. I’ve just used and abused it. I think people like to think that before we made Streetcleaner that we were some long-hair band who’d just discovered industrial music when that’s not the case at all. The first music I was into was punk rock. It’s so hard to convey these ideas to these people. They always come to me with how metal should go back to what it was in the eighties, and I’m like, ‘bloody hell!’ I’ve always found metal rather conservative.”10

In a more recent interview, he describes the collision and collusion of genres inherent in Godflesh’s sound:

I guess one of the things about metal is that it’s really stigmatised, even with myself in Godflesh, when we first became somewhat popular, I was very eager at that time to distance myself from metal, and I think that’s because at the time there was very little like Godflesh. The most popular metal when Godflesh became popular in 1989/90 was the back-end of the hair metal thing, and Godflesh played with a lot of bands, a lot of tours in America like that, and I became quite repulsed by the whole circus of heavy metal. But, essentially, I’ve always been excited by what’s central to heavy metal, which is the sound, the texture of heavy metal. That was it, for me. Godflesh was about pure reductionism, minimalism, reducing heavy metal to its absolute primitives. But also… these elements of electronica, machines, quite literally the very primitive stages of being able to program computers and use machine beats, which for me, initially, was as informed by Public Enemy and Eric B. and Rakim records as it was anything beyond that and being able to create beats bigger than a human drummer could do.11

To wit, the beat on the song “Christbait Rising” from Streetcleaner was Broadrick’s attempt to copy the rhythm break from 1988’s “Microphone Fiend” by Eric B. and Rakim.12 “We have our own bastardized idea of what we can do hip-hop-wise… It comes out even more perverted this way.”13

Godflesh has always pushed limits in one direction or another. Streetcleaner is the germinal industrial-metal hybrid sound that bands all over the world are still trying to recreate — and Godflesh continued innovating and never looked back. Since officially disbanding Godflesh in 2002, Broadrick has been busy with a band called Jesu (whom he named after the last song on the last Godflesh record, indicating a continuation of sorts of their sound), and his original musical outlet Final, among other various remixes and collaborations. With the reuniting of Godflesh in 2010, Broadrick admits that he finds himself at home in the band. “I think Godflesh is still presenting exactly what I grew up with and exactly what runs through my blood, “ he said in 2011. “It’s really important that that sense of expression is back in my life. I think I’d lost it through Jesu. But really, it’s not just some re-visitation for me, it really feels like I’ve gone back to what I am in a way.”14

Justin Broadrick was born on August 15, 1969 in Birmingham, an “unpleasant” area that he describes as “the Detroit of England.”15 His first few years were spent on an actual hippie commune before his family – he, his mom, and stepfather; his real father was a heroin addict whom he didn’t see until he was fifteen years old – moved into a council estate, the projects of England. By the age of twelve, Broadrick found Punk rock and industrial bands like Throbbing Gristle and Whitehouse, as well as krautrock like Can and Brian Eno’s early ambient work, all of which would inform his own musical output. He started messing around with some of his stepfather’s music gear, and taught himself guitar. “[W]hen I began to play guitar,” he explains “I mastered one bar chord and realized that I could any Crass song I wanted. That was pretty satisfying in itself. Music was like a dirty word when I went to school in 1978. Everyone was just into football hooliganism. But at home, I was absolutely inspired at a very young age to act in my environment, both in the form of music and to some extent against the oppressive environment I was in.”16

In the early 1980s, zines and tapes were heavily circulating through underground networks. Broadrick’s interest in extreme music and in finding like-minded individuals naturally landed him in the middle of this subculture. He started his first band, Final, and recorded many cassettes. Through these exchanges, he joined a band called Fall of Because. Benny Green, Paul Neville, and Diarmuid Dalton – all of whom Broadrick still works with in different projects – made up the rest of the band. Broadrick joined them on drums, replacing their drum machine. Fall of Because’s one recorded demo (which was compiled with live clips and released as the record Life is Easy in 1999) hints at the cold nihilism that would become Godflesh’s signature sound.

Broadrick had two more short stops before forming Godflesh proper: He played guitar on the first side of the first record by Grindcore pioneers Napalm Death, and drums for the down-tuned, sludgy, metal band Head of David. “Head of David already had an album out,” Broadrick explains. “They were the only people I knew who had fans and actually had a record in the shops. It wasn’t just opportunistic for me, that first Head of David album I actually adored. I thought it was fucking amazing. With Napalm Death, we played with them a few times, and they were absolutely stunning. When their drummer left, they saw me drum with Fall of Because and invited me to join.”17

His exit from Head of David was the real beginning of Godflesh “They wanted to lose a lot of the noise and the qualities that had attracted me to that band,” he said. “So, when they kicked me out of the band, I thought, right, I want to do something that takes the basic premise of where I wanted to go with Head of David, low-tune everything, make it brutal,”18 to take it “to the gutter, make it more machine-like”19 In the meantime, Fall of Because had broken up, leaving Benny Green free to join Broadrick’s new project. “Godflesh really became my vision, and Ben Green was really into the same type of stuff… and we already had our songs from Fall of Because so we began with those… I was really influenced by people using drum machines, most notably some of the hip-hop at the time: Public Enemy, Eric B & Rakim. When I first heard some of those records, I was astonished at the brutality of their drum machines, and I really was excited by that sound. I really wanted something inhuman sounding and beyond human capability. And I was already a drummer, so I knew what beats I wanted to hear. I wanted to hear them in the most disgusting, heavy fashion going.20 Their self-titled debut EP on Swordfish Records made the promises that 1989’s Streetcleaner finally delivered on: songs awash in wailing, scraping guitars, dirge-like, lumbering bass lines, brutal, machine-driven beats, and Broadrick’s anguished vocals. It was like nothing else at the time. The second wave of industrial music, a beat-driven and mechanistic subgenre that found its roots in Throbbing Gristle, Einsturzende Neubauten, and Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, was in full swing. Though no one else was mixing metal with machines quite like Godflesh, fueled by the popularity of Ministry, Skinny Puppy, Nine Inch Nails, and the output of Chicago’s WaxTrax Records, the movement gave audiences a cultural reference point and made Streetcleaner an underground hit for Godflesh and their label Earache records. It wasn’t long before the majors came courting.

“I remember being stunned when I heard that first Korn album,” Broadrick said in 2007, “because there’s so much Godflesh in that, but used in this commercial way. It was weird. Like, wow, I guess it had to happen at some point; somebody had to take these sorts of sounds and make them digestible.”21 Everyone from innovative rappers like El-P to more obvious followers like Isis acknowledge the record’s prescience. “At the time when Isis started,” singer and guitarist Aaron Turner said, “there weren’t a lot of other bands exploring that territory; Godflesh were one of the few founding fathers of that sound. They were taking influences from a number of different places and didn’t really fit in anywhere.” Isis covered the title track from Streetcleaner as homage to its influence on them. “Justin has been ahead of most musicians,” attests Alap Momin of noisy hip-hop group dälek, “reinventing genres from grindcore to hip-hop to drum and bass and more for almost twenty five years. It’s pretty insane when someone can pull that off once, but to do it repeatedly in a variety of genres is really ridiculous.” Burton C. Bell of industrial metal band Fear Factory said, “Streetcleaner is a fantastically produced and written record; every song is an opus.”22 The full reach of Streetcleaner’s influence is difficult to gauge, but it’s safe to say that much of what is considered metal in the twenty-first century wouldn’t exist without it.

Notes:

1. Turner, Luke (2009, November 18). Greymachine: Justin Broadrick and Aaron Turner United. The Quietus.

2. Rene. (1992). Godflesh interview. Propaganda Magazine, #19, pp. 40-41.

3. Bartkewitcz, Anthony (2007, March). Vision: Escape: Justin Broadrick. Decibel Magazine, pp. 68-74.

4. Bartkewitcz, 2007.

5. Mundrian, Albert (2007, March). Just Words from the Editor. Decibel Magazine, p. 8.

6. Horsley, Jonathan (2011, October 7). Justin Broadrick interview: Godflesh, growing up and anarcho-punk. Decibel Magazine.

7. Koczan, J. J. (2011, May 6). Jesu Interview: Justin Broadrick Confirms New Godflesh Studio Album, Discusses Jesu’s Latest, Imperfection, Self-Indulgence, Roadburn, and Much More. The Obelisk.

8. Christopher, Roy. (1996, October). Godflesh: Uneasy Listening. Pandemonium! Magazine.

9. Christopher, Roy. (1997, December). Godflesh: Heads Ain’t Ready. SLAP Skateboard Magazine.

10. Christopher, 1997.

11. Horsley, 2011.

12. Valcic, Vuk. (2010, June/July). Godflesh revisits Streetcleaner. Rock-A-Rolla Magazine, p. 28-29.

13. Christopher, 1997.

14. Horsley, 2011.

15. Nasrallah, Dimitri. (2010, September). Justin Broadrick: Napalm Death – Godflesh – Techno Animal – Jesu – Pale Sketcher.

16. Nasrallah, 2010.

17. Nasrallah, 2010.

18. Nasrallah, 2010.

19. Bartkewitcz, 2007.

20. Nasrallah, 2010.

21. Bartkewitcz, 2007.

22. Bartkewitcz, 2007.

 

Table of Contents:

1. Introduction: On the Grind: The Prequel – in which we find out where Godflesh and Streetcleaner came from, including Justin K. Broadrick’s fraught beginnings, his first band Final, Napalm Death and its separate ways, his brief stints in Fall of Because and Head of David, and his forming Godflesh proper. An introduction to the analysis of subcultures (specifically music subcultures; cf. Dick Hebdige, Simon Reynolds, et al.), which is imperative to understanding the formation of Godflesh and the creation of Streetcleaner, will be included here.

2. Streetcleaner: The New Blueprint – the record that’s a little bit grind, a little bit industrial, a little bit something else. This chapter will be not only an in-depth look at the making of Streetcleaner, including discussions with Broadrick and his bandmates, but also at the cultural conditions – socioeconomic, technological, and musical – that influenced its creation.

3. Hip-hop: Under the Influence – No drummer could do what they wanted done; it took the power of a machine. Making sense of the genre-bending and blending of Godflesh’s debut through Broadrick’s punk roots, metal beginnings, and hip-hop obsession, and how they all influenced the sound of Streetcleaner.

4. Stray Pavement: What Hath These Clean Streets Wrought? – which will investigate the influence of Streetcleaner, from its industrial Imitators (e.g., Fear Factory, Stabbing Westward, Gravity Kills, etc.) to its contemporaries (e.g., Nine Inch Nails, Ministry, Skinny Puppy, etc.) and its lasting influence, from the rap-rock fusion (e.g., Rage Against the Machine, Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park, etc.) to nu-metal (e.g., Korn, Deftones, Tool, etc.), and what Broadrick thinks of his creation’s legacy.

5. Potholes in My Soul: Growing Pains and Dead Batteries – A brief look at the rest of the Godflesh oeuvre, the dissolution of the band, and why Streetcleaner still stands out as the classic that it is.

6. Conclusion: Go Spread Your Wings: The Soul of a New Machine – A parting glance at Broadrick’s post-Godflesh band, Jesu, and what the future holds for the recently reunited Godflesh as well as the recently reissued Streetcleaner.

————————

Many thanks for the time and consideration of David Barker, John Mark Boling, , and the whole team at Bloomsbury Academic for the opportunity. And congratulations to the ninety-four on the long list!

Further Posting:

7 Comments »

  • Richard Linville said:

    Godflesh is one of my absolute favorites. While I got into Godflesh when Selfless came out I quickly found my way to the earlier stuff after that. I am still a huge fans of JKB and his various side projects to this day. I would have totally bought this book too. The 33 1/3 series has been hit and miss for me but overall I have really enjoyed the books (esp. Erk Davis’ take on Zeppelin 4). I also happened to submit a proposal this year, which got rejected, on Voivod’s Nothingface. Which is a band I did not expect to see mentioned here however I was very pleased to was. Enjoying the site keep up the great work.

  • Roy Christopher (author) said:

    Thanks, Richard!

    I totally would’ve snagged a book on Nothingface: also one of my favorite records by one of my favorite bands. Though I think David Barker is doing a great job managing the chaos over there, the series is rather hit-and-miss and getting more so.

    Oh, I wrote a bit about Erik Davis‘s book and the series in general.

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