When was it recorded? Nov. 4, 1965
When was it first released, and on which album? Dec. 3, 1965 on “Rubber Soul”
Who wrote it? Lennon (with noteworthy contribution from McCartney & Starkey)
Have I heard this song before? Yes
What my research dug up:
John wrote “What Goes On” during the band’s time as The Quarrymen. According to the Beatles Bible, it was “written before the group had a recording contract and never performed live.”
Between then and it formal release, the tune underwent some revisions, which Paul and Ringo both reportedly helped with.
“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…” — Ringo Starr
Of course, the first pressing of the song left Ringo’s name off the credits. Dude couldn’t catch a break, although he did joke at the time his entire contribution was “[a]bout five words, and I haven’t done a thing since.”
As described in Richie Unterberger’s review, “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’ [covered on Day 3]… ’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.”
On Mar. 5, 1963, the Beatles played “What Goes On” for George Martin in the studio but didn’t record it. According to Wikipedia the song was being considered as a follow-up single for “Please Please Me” but only had time to record three other songs that night (“From Me to You,” “One After 909,” and “Thank You Girl”). Still, an early demo recorded by Paul exists.
“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.” — Neil Aspinall (The Beatles Book, April 1966)
Surprisingly this hasn’t been leaked.
The Fab Four then recorded “What Goes On” in one take on Nov. 4, 1965 for “Rubber Soul.” After nailing the rhythm track Ringo, John, and Paul added vocal tracks.
According to Alan Pollack, “the recording of this song is well known for its unusually large number of so-called anomalies; one of which (the rejoinder to Ringo in the second verse) smacks of horseplay, while the others sound more like an unaccustomed and accidental exposure of Ringo’s singing or humming to himself to help keep his place during the portions of the song where he wouldn’t be singing lead.” To wit, Pollack later wrote, “You can hear Ringo clearly repeating the phrase ‘in your mind’ throughout this outro, I assume, to help him keep count of the number of measures before the end.”
In the US, “What Goes On” appeared as the B-side to the “Nowhere Man” single. Released Feb. 15, 1966, the song peaked at #81 on the pop music charts.
Quoth Pollack, “It’s not that ‘What Goes On?’ is entirely without either merit or charm; the song is not so much a ‘bad’ one as much as it appears weak in context of what its authors were capable of on a fairly regular basis by this point of their career.” I definitely agree with his assessment — I do like this song a lot (again, predisposed to like country music), but it’s not quite as classic as, say, yesterday’s tune, nor does it deserve to be. I kind of forgot what I was listening to halfway through it, and it’s not a long song by any means. It’s fun fluff, nothing more, nothing less.