Escape Philosophy

Godflesh’s Streetcleaner and the Body as a Prison

It’s not like it looks on TV. You never see the open torso of a body heaving and sucking after a bullet, a piece of shrapnel, or a chunk of flying concrete has ripped right through it. But the worst part is the smell: somewhere between bad breath and warm shit. And it’s inescapable. If the blood and guts get to be too much, you can look away. You can’t get way from the smell.

Bodies are gross. Getting out of them remains one of the most pervasive and persistent human fantasies. Fragile and frail, they fail us. From machines and media to drugs and technology, we want to escape our earthly cages. “I cried when I came back and found myself trapped in a body,” once stated sensory-depravation and dolphin-intelligence researcher Dr. John C. Lilly after a long acid trip. “I didn’t even know whose body it was at first. It was the sadness of reentry. I felt squashed.” Dr. Lilly developed sensory depravation tanks and tripped balls in them specifically to mute his corporeal existence, to explore his mind beyond his body, to defy his earthbound master, to blaspheme his god, his flesh.

Finding oneself trapped in a body can be a traumatic experience. When that body is stuck in a city walled-in with cement and a family fraught with addiction, escape is the driving principle. As Broadrick put it,

Early Godflesh was absolutely a product of my own environment, but it wasn’t entirely the landscape outside the window, the concrete and the council estate; it was also to do with my childhood background, the way my mother was when I was young and what I was exposed to. I was exposed to drug-taking at an early age and a lot of intense partying. As often these things are, it was about the family relationship I had: very angsty. When we formed Godflesh, I was only 18 or something and still learning to deal with a lot of frustration, anger, love, hate…
“Flesh crumbles in the real world.”

Streetcleaner’s cover image is a screen-capture from Ken Russell’s 1980 movie Altered States. The story, written by Paddy Chayefsky, follows a scientist attempting to escape his body through his mind, using sensory depravation tanks and hallucinogens. It closely parallels the early work of John C. Lilly. Exploring the extremes of neurophysiology, biophysics, and electronics, Lilly experimented on himself with isolation tanks and LSD.

“The whole thing with extremes is how often Godflesh and the people around us were just taking shitloads of acid and listening to extreme music, watching extreme films, you know?” Broadrick tells Decibel Magazine. “That’s how the cover of Streetcleaner came about: We would watch Altered States on too many tabs, and every time we’d come to that one sequence with everyone burning on the crosses, we were just like, ‘Holy fuck!’ Those sorts of trips we had, watching Altered States and The Devils, were such an influence on Streetcleaner and Pure and everything.” Broadrick’s emotions parallel John C. Lilly’s when returning to his body from a sense-deprived acid trip. As we will soon see, body anxiety and the means of escape therefrom (e.g., drugs, machines, and death) are immanent in Streetcleaner.

These compound monikers are loaded with shifting and shady meaning. “Godflesh” connotes the sins of the body, and the body as master. It’s also slang for peyote. Aside from being the name of a dirty, noisy machine, “Streetcleaner” is slang for an Uzi semiautomatic weapon: A machine designed for killing humans in mass quanities. 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.” 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 in 2011, 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.”

Godflesh: Justin K. Broadrick (L) and Benny Green

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!’” 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.”

“With Godflesh, we try to aim at something quite off balance, off kilter, a lot different from anyone else,” he told me in 1996. 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.

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. “We have our own bastardized idea of what we can do hip-hop-wise… It comes out even more perverted this way.” Broadrick wanted to take that sound “to the gutter, make it more machine-like” Emphasizing the limits of the human, he adds,

I was really influenced by people using drum machines… 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.
Hans Moravec’s Mind Children (1988).

Often viewed as a threat, mechanization promises freedom from frail bodies. Samuel Butler asked in 1872, “Is not machinery linked with animal life in an infinite variety of ways?” Others imagine a much more deliberate merging, postulating an uploading of human consciousness into the machines themselves, known in robotic and artificial intelligence circles as “The Moravec Transfer.” Its namesake, roboticist Hans Moravec, describes a human brain being uploaded, neuron by neuron, until it exists unperturbed inside a machine. But Moravec wasn’t the first to imagine such a transition. Robert Jastrow wrote in 1984 that uploading our minds into machines is the be-all of evolution and would make us immortal. He wrote,

At last the human brain, ensconced in a computer, has been liberated from the weakness of the mortal flesh… The machine is its body; it is the machine’s mind… It seems to me that this must be the mature form of intelligent life in the Universe. Housed in indestructible lattices of silicon, and no longer constrained in the span of its years by the life and death cycle of a biological organism, such a kind of life could live forever.

If we can build a better body and inhabit it instead of this one, why not? Godflesh employ a drum machine on Streetcleaner because a human drummer couldn’t do what they wanted done. The “machine,” as it is credited in the liner notes, is faster, more furious, less fragile. “I was really influenced by people using drum machines,” Broadrick explains to Dmitri Nasrallah, “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.” As Broadrick loudly laments on “Locust Furnace,” “Flesh crumbles in the real world.”

“Screw you and your world.”

Godflesh’s 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’s 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.”

Justin Broadrick was born on August 15, 1969 in Birmingham, an “unpleasant” area that he describes as “the Detroit of England.” 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 play 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.” The physical body is often seen as a prison, as something to be escaped. Some people seek their way out via any means necessary: drugs, sensory depravation, death. If the flesh is their god, they are devoted to destroying it. They seek what Mark Dery calls “escape velocity” by any means necessary.

“I don’t have a very optimistic view of humanity,” says Broadrick. “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…” This quote from the early 1990s sums up quite a lot of Broadrick’s motivation as an artist. His prolific career, involving countless bands and projects, now spans over three decades, but Godflesh’s Streetcleaner remains his most powerful musical and philosophical statement.

“It’s just a matter of time, for me, before our ultimate extinction, and I can’t say we don’t deserve it,” Broadrick tells Luke Turner at The Quietus. One last means of escape: extinction, to “bleed dry mankind,” Broadrick puts it on Streetcleaner’s “Christbait Rising.” The very name “Streetcleaner” evokes an apocalyptic purification of all life. Wiping us from this world would relieve all of the tensions of the flesh and bring the ultimate, final brutality.