The Beatles

What Goes On

Composed by John Lennon / Paul McCartney

Song Review by

Most of the songs on Rubber Soul explored directions that the Beatles, and indeed most of rock music, hadn't ventured into before. There were some more conventional exceptions to this, however, one of them being "What Goes On" (which actually didn't appear on the US edition of Rubber Soul in 1965, getting used a few months later as the B-side to "Nowhere Man" and then as part of the Yesterday...and Today compilation). Like several other songs from the Beatles' circa late-1964-mid-1965 era, "What Goes On" is very country and western-influenced, almost as if the group were trying to write a song like "Act Naturally" (the Buck Owens song they covered on Help!). "What Goes On" is thus a minor entry in the Beatles canon, but it's an enjoyable if lightweight one, showing the group had a genuine affinity for rock'n'roll bordering on country music when the spirit moved them. George Harrison's guitar again marks him as the finest disciple of Carl Perkins -- particularly during the sharp licks on the instrumental break -- and the Beatles' slightly bittersweet (but more sweet than bitter) harmonies during the verse also demonstrate their skill as country-shaded singers. Ringo Starr was the Beatle most enamored of country music, and it's he who takes the lead vocal during the bridge, which eases into a melancholy melody both highly unlike the verse and more melodically sophisticated than the rest of the song. Although "What Goes On"'s lyric is rather lovelorn, in common with most Beatles songs about downbeat situations, it's actually related in such good cheer that you find it hard to believe the guys are going to let the situation get the better of them and not find a way to work out things to their satisfaction. The writing credits to "What Goes On" have always aroused curiosity, being the only Beatles song to bear the credit "Lennon-McCartney-Starkey" (Starkey being Richard Starkey, the given name of Ringo Starr), and the first Beatles song to put Ringo's name into the songwriting credits in any capacity. It's not clear what Ringo's contribution was, although he estimated in 1966 that it was "about five words"; according to the biography Paul McCartney: Many Years from Now, Ringo co-wrote the middle eight (or bridge) with Paul. "What Goes On" was actually an old Lennon-McCartney song with John as primary composer, and had actually been played and considered (though not recorded) at the March 1963 session that yielded the third Beatles single, "From Me to You." Most likely it was exhumed for Rubber Soul because every Beatles album had a song with a Ringo lead vocal, and "What Goes On" was deemed suitable in the absence of any other material at the ready, with McCartney and Starr adding the new middle eight at that time. "What Goes On"'s country flavor made it a natural for some country-oriented groups to cover, like the bluegrass band the Charles River Valley Boys, who put it on their Beatle Country album of Beatles covers, and the bluegrass group the Seldom Scene, who put it on a late-1980s album.

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
Rubber Soul 1965 EMI 2:49
Sessions 1990 Capitol 2:53
No Image 1992 Toshiba EMI
The Ultimate Box Set 1995 Capitol 2:50
Forever Gold 1999 Diamond Recordings 2:47
The Beatles: Stereo Box Set 2009 EMI 2:47
The Beatles USB 2009 Capitol 2:48
The Beatles in Mono [Vinyl Box Set] 2014 Capitol
The Beatles Christmas Pack Emd Int'l
The Beatles: 16 Superhits, Vol. 2 Dorado Records 2:48
blue highlight denotes editor's pick