‘What Goes On’ was one of John Lennon’s early songs, written before the group had a recording contract and never performed live.
All We Are Saying, David Sheff
It wasn’t released until 1965’s Rubber Soul, where it was issued, uniquely, with a Lennon-McCartney-Starkey credit.
I used to wish that I could write songs like the others – and I’ve tried, but I just can’t. I can get the words all right, but whenever I think of a tune and sing it to the others they always say, ‘Yeah, it sounds like such-a-thing,’ and when they point it out I see what they mean. But I did get a part credit as a composer on one – it was called ‘What Goes On’.
The Beatles played ‘What Goes On’ to George Martin on 5 March 1963, although it remained unrecorded at that time. Two years later it was resurrected as Starr’s vocal spot on the group’s sixth album. A demo was also reportedly recorded by Paul McCartney, though has yet to appear either commercially or as a bootleg.
When Paul wanted to show Ringo how ‘What Goes On’ sounded he made up a multi-track tape. Onto this went Paul singing, Paul playing lead guitar, Paul playing bass and Paul playing drums. Then Ringo listened to the finished tape and added his own ideas before the recording session.
The Beatles Book magazine, April 1966
When Rubber Soul was released in December 1965 it marked the first occurrence of a writing credit for the group’s drummer. When asked about his contribution during a 1966 press conference, Starr joked that he had written “About five words, and I haven’t done a thing since!”
Lennon later claimed that ‘What Goes On’ was “resurrected with a middle eight thrown in, probably with Paul’s help”. However, the song contains no middle eight; it seems more likely that McCartney developed the verses, possibly with some help from Starr.
In the studio
‘What Goes On’ was first brought to Abbey Road on 5 March 1963. After recording ‘From Me To You’ and ‘Thank You Girl’, The Beatles wanted to record two further Lennon–McCartney compositions. In the end, only ‘One After 909’ was taped. This was eventually released on Anthology 1 in 1995, although a better-known attempt from 1969 was included on Let It Be.
The Beatles eventually recorded ‘What Goes On’ in a single take on 4 November 1965. The session began at 11pm: it was an unusually late start for the group, and necessitated by the looming deadline for the album.
Following the taping of the rhythm track, Ringo Starr recorded his lead vocals and Lennon and McCartney overdubbed their harmony backing.