Extreme music godfathers Godflesh reunite after 15 years to play the Streetcleaner album for the eager HMV Forum crowd in Kentish Town.
Consisting of Birmingham duo Justin Broadrick and G.C. Green, Godflesh tore the music world a new one with their debut album Streetcleaner. Violent lyrics and uncompromising music the album was a definite assault on every level of Thatcherite England. The UK in 1988 was not a happy place and for the two council estate Birmingham teens their prospective horizons served to punch them in the face. Streetcleaner reflects this and pushes the listener into the midst of a blind oppressive conflict where the only salvation is in endurance.
Creative people often argue that limits create focus and by constraining your vision it’s easier to be expressive with what you have as opposed to the endless possibilities of everything. With guitar, bass, drum machine and a multi-tracked angry voice Godflesh created a whole world of brutal industrial music that continues to heard in heavy music to this day. Since they disbanded in 2002, Justin has gone to work with a variety of different artists as well as forming the band Jesu who have released a number of introspective guitar focussed records to critical acclaim. Whatever followed Streetcleaner remains a special moment in not only their careers but also modern music, so how did a uniquely non-conformist band get back together to perform an album 23 years old?
Ben: The promoter for Hellfest , where we’d played last year kept saying ‘We’d like to get you back, we’d like to do a reunion show’, it’s a good festival, so we agreed.
(Justin and I) had been out of communication for a number of years…
Justin: I think it was 10 years… no wait, wow it was actually 15. The Hellfest promoter was the catalyst for it really. He’d been in contact for about three years. It was his insistence and passion about the group inspired us in a way and got us thinking about what it would be like to revisit it; would it be an absolute throwback or would it actually be thrilling? Ironically, that performance fell apart due to logistical shit that went on that night.
I think the best performance of the album was at Roadburn. That was amazing.
Ben: With Hellfest there were a lot of technical issues. We were in the middle of a field. The generator went down before we went on and we weren’t prepared for it. We played but it was disappointing.
Justin: The thing was that while we were prepared musically, we weren’t prepared physically for the whole thing. It was actually overwhelming because we’d been away for so long and coming back for the Hellfest thing was huge. I personally felt overawed by the audience. There was almost too much expectation, so inevitably you’re going to fold under such expectation. Part of the charm of the Godflesh is that it was always a frail sort of thing.”
Justin has mentioned in many other interviews that where Jesu is more concentrated, Godflesh is more physical, visceral and powerful. After such a long time it would be surprising if he still felt the same way about the album, is it possible to still be so outwardly aggressive?
Justin: “Godflesh is misinterpreted as an attacking thing where it’s more of a defensive thing. It’s a scream of frustration. Revisiting it does mean you’re revisiting those old emotions that it took to make this music.
That said, the funny thing is that revisiting those emotions you realise that it doesn’t go away. It just becomes more particular in being able to deal with this stuff yourself in some way. With Jesu it’s more about resignation and it’s more internalised, whereas Godflesh was more externalising something. It’s about trying to communicate this sense of frustration; living in urban hell, in council estates, growing up in the 70s in Birmingham. My own upbringing was pretty confused and chaotic. I didn’t really have a stable upbringing so it was all part of the process that went into making that album. Some of those songs, at least half of Streetcleaner are Fall of Because songs…
Ben: …half of side two.
We lived together as one for about two years. We shared one room for about a year and a half, with just a couple of mattresses on the floor in a council flat, we were both on the dole and we lived like…
Justin: I thought we lived like Crass and you (Ben) thought we lived more like The Monkees.”
Like Rats, Streetcleaner’s opening track is stark reminder of the bitterness and resentment felt by the underprivileged and disaffected, not just against society but against each other.
Don’t look back
Don’t look back
You were dead from the beginning
– ‘Like Rats’, Godflesh. 1988
Harsh lyrics, sparse and open to interpretation, ‘You Breed, like Rats’ in particular echoes words common to nationalist groups, however the overall intent contains a much wider disaffection. By definition, extreme music appeals to a diverse group of listeners most of whom have some sort of axe to grind.
Justin: “Once in Sweden, a guy had managed to wheedle his way backstage and started spouting all this racist stuff. He obviously interpreted us as having some sort of allegiance with Nazi groups or something.
I think on the surface level we are quite clearly messing with that sort imagery but it’s also opposing it; it’s the antithesis of it. For instance, a band like Whitehouse are clearly not glorifying mass murder but work with the sound of it… But yeah we’ve had a bit of that sort of response. So, that guy we had to kick him out. We were like; ‘wow, he’s so off the fucking mark’.”
Ben: Where we grew up was so white. It was a white council estate (and I remember) a little local Asian shop had opened up and people threw bricks through the window. That was exactly what we were trying to get away from, that bigoted mentality. But you can interpret it how you like.
We’ve always had people with extreme ideology turn up and expect us to be on the same wavelength, which we were not.
For me the music was about throwing stuff back in people’s faces as a defence, rather than a ‘We’re Strong’ sort of attitude or those sorts of statements. It’s about trying to be strong and not being crushed by it all.
Justin: Even down to the schools. The school I attended was all about bigotry and you had to align yourself to a gang in a way, just to get by. So you had to become a chameleon like figure and that was something I absolutely didn’t want to be.
I wanted to wear my heart on my sleeve, I still do, that’s the sort of person I am. You had to become something ‘other’ to survive. I hated that bigotry. I was going to Crass concerts when I was 11 of 12 and coming home I’d get the shit beaten out of me for having a couple of spikes in my hair. Just that level of petty bigotry… which obviously never goes away and will never go away because it’s part of the human condition.”
When it was released, Streetcleaner (Earache, 1988) attracted a following from all corners of extreme music. Heavy metallers, crust punks, industrial goths and adventurous listeners to John Peel’s radio show all attended the gigs. Listening to the album now, there is a lot more variation present than it was originally given credit for. The most polarising example is Deadhead, a track that owes as much to My Bloody Valentine and Joy Division as it is does to Godflesh’s own signature sound.
More than a metal record, Streetcleaner was a groove record.
“Yeah even at that stage we were emulating Hip-Hop beats with essentially an early Hip-Hop drum machine.
(Groove was) essential and that’s what set us apart from the whole thing at the time. Especially from the other bands that were part of Earache at the time, who were doing death metal and thrash, so obviously we stood out. We thought the groove element wasn’t that subtle but it seemed to be, as people seemed to miss it entirely and just thought that it was music to bang your head against a wall or something.
People missed a lot of things though; take Big Black, they were obsessed with ZZ Top and antiquated rock grooves and people missed that as well. It was their interpretation of it and that was essential for us as well.
An album like Streetcleaner wasn’t quite as greyscale as it seems to have been interpreted as. It wasn’t quite as singular. There’s actually a whole heap of music and shit loads of influences going on but when it’s as extreme as this it’s obvious that it only reaches a certain level.”
Justin has admitted that Christbait Rising was in a way a tribute to Microphone Fiend by Eric B and Rakim (check the beat and vocal manipulation from 3:37).
Amongst both heavy and experimental musicians Streetcleaner put Justin Broadrick on the radar as a guy they had to work with. Offers came in from Faith No More and Danzig (amongst others) to join as a guitarist, all of which he turned down. Mainstream success never fully found Godflesh, though industrial rock was to become big business with protégés Nine Inch Nails, the difference between the two bands wasn’t necessarily one of approach but perhaps one based on leader’s vision. Trent Reznor has described Nine Inch Nails as an unusual pop band whereas in 1996 (Guitar Magazine) Justin said; ‘We’d really like to reach for a wider audience without pandering to people. Extreme music shouldn’t be subjugated as a minor genre’. Uncompromising throughout, it can be wondered whether Godflesh would have become bigger if he’d used a tenure in the bigger bands to bring more commercial exposure to the band.
“Yeah, yeah. Well, we supported Danzig when he was at his biggest or whatever and it was us and Type-O Negative, so clearly again we were the odd ones out. First show we played there were actually sharpened 1c coins being chucked at my head. As soon as we started the coins started raining down at some fucking open air gig in Dallas or something, with 80,000 people just hating us. We raged into it; daytime, bright sunlight, you know completely inappropriate surroundings amongst a hail of sharpened 1c coins. Fucking mental.”
Then again perhaps not. Godflesh are probably one of the best and most influential bands the UK has ever produced and their reunion gig, though not fully attended, was as it ever was, packed full of musicians. Which is just fine with the band, as the music culture progresses to heavier music, it seems inevitable that they will get the wider recognition they’ve never fully sought and chances are they’ll continue to change lives against the odds.