Background and recording
Before performing as Godflesh, G. C. Green (bass) and Paul Neville (guitar) played together in a band known as Fall of Because. That group, formed in 1982, were less overtly heavy than what they would become as Godflesh, drawing musical and aesthetic influence from bands like the Cure. Future frontman Justin Broadrick (guitar, vocals and programming) joined Fall of Because in 1984 and introduced Green and Neville to Swans, Sonic Youth and Discharge. Inspired by the dissonance of this music, the group recorded a demo called Extirpate (1986). The songs "Devastator", "Mighty Trust Krusher", "Life Is Easy" and "Merciless" were included on this demo, the first three of which would be rerecorded for Streetcleaner. These early versions were eventually released on a wide scale in 1999 via the compilation album Life Is Easy.
HR-16, the model of drum machine used for Streetcleaner's
Shortly after Fall of Because dissolved in 1987, Broadrick and Green reconvened without Neville and, in April 1988, renamed the project Godflesh. They released their debut self-titled EP on the independent label Swordfish later that year. That EP, though described by critics as raw and unrefined, is considered one of the originating industrial metal releases and proved to be the foundation upon which Streetcleaner would fine-tune Godflesh's approach to the genre. After the underground success of Godflesh, the band played several shows across Europe and recorded a four-track EP titled Tiny Tears. Before they could release the EP on Swordfish, Godflesh were acquired by Earache Records, and Digby Pearson, the label's head, urged the band to shelve the tracks and instead focus on putting out a complete studio album next. Broadrick and Green agreed and began recording Streetcleaner in May 1989 at Soundcheck in Birmingham and Square Dance in Derby.
The Birmingham sessions saw Broadrick and Green recording and mixing the first half of the album, while the Derby sessions (which yielded tracks six through ten) saw the temporary reincorporation of Neville into the band, this time as a second guitarist. Tiny Tears was appended to the end of CD versions of Streetcleaner, resulting in the album including material from three separate sessions. The entirety of the creative period was reinforced by an Alesis HR-16 drum machine. This choice was at first made out of necessity since Broadrick could not play the beats he wanted acoustically (he described himself as "[not] a great drummer"), but he came to embrace machine percussion and consider it a defining feature of Godflesh.:2 Loudwire called the HR-16, specifically in regard to its use on Streetcleaner, "the most devastating drum machine ever employed". In a retrospective interview, Broadrick described the release as "one of the most alienating albums" he had ever made and referred to it as the band's landmark record.