Normal Hawaiians were based between Thornton Heath and the Brixton squat scene encircling the anarchist bookshop at 121 Railton Road. The brutal 1981 Brixton Riots and the heavy-handed policing that followed had fostered a billowing sense of conflict with state forces.
Following the release of More Wealth Than Money (Illuminated, 1982), there was an impetus to make good on hard won achievements. Rehearsal and writing sessions resumed in the early months of 1983 at Intergalactic Arts Studios, off the Old Kent Rd in London. IGA was a ramshackle, semi-residential rehearsal space where the Hawaiians – none of them ‘natural’ musicians - would often play and rehearse in the dark, recording demos onto cassette.
Whereas More Wealth Than Money had evolved in the recording studio, What’s Going On began to develop as a more pre-meditated, albeit piecemeal work. Quiet Village and the unreleased Outpost had already been finished at Foel in February 1983. Recording Engineer Brian Snelling recalls how the Hawaiians approach to making the album was unconventional and spontaneous, revelling in chance and openness. Rehearsal tapes from IGA were played along to, and and improvisations allowed to develop, with further layers of sound accreting (as can be heard on the final cut of Big Lies). Free Tibet was created by the band playing together exploratively (guitars and their sounds were ‘treated’ with a penny whistle and a rusty screwdriver) with Snelling waiting to hit ‘Record’ until he heard that something interesting was coalescing.
Mixed tapes were then taken by Dave Andersen and Guy Smith to Charly Records’ editing studio in London where Andersen had worked and was able to pull downtime. Here they spliced the recordings into an irregular yet coherent, flowing work, Side One being intentionally and meticulously honed as a seamless and inventive narrative. Recalling the rudimentary nature of both the equipment and the demo tapes brought in, Snelling now views the end result as ‘brilliant’ though his initial feeling on hearing the edited and mastered LP was that the record had been ‘cut to pieces’. Final masters were then EQ’d and cut by Graeme Durham at the newly opened Exchange Mastering Studios in Camden.
And then nothing happened. Unbeknownst to the band, Illuminated Records were getting into deep financial problems and by early 1984 were struggling to release label-saving albums from Throbbing Gristle, 400 Blows and Kevin Ayers. Meetings with company boss Keith Bagley were often held in dusty old daytime drinking clubs around the Fulham Road, but the label was in its death throes. Test pressings sounded good but the printing of the cover was all wrong. The cover image was too green, though thankfully a final batch had this corrected to a more appropriate sepia hue. As it became clear that the release was in danger of a catastrophic failure without the goodwill of distributors and promotors, the label gave the band 250 copies to sell as a ‘Sorry for Fucking Up goodbye present’, but the record shops wouldn’t touch them. The company had been blacklisted. Smith and Alun ‘Wilf’ Williams screen printed the label name off the LP to distance it from disaster, but to little avail. This intricate, challenging and engaging work had been failed by poor circumstance.