alan w. pollack's
notes on ...

Notes on "What Goes On?"


Notes on ... Series #83 (WGO)
  by Alan W. Pollack
       Key: E Major
     Meter: 4/4
                    ------ 2X ------
      Form: Intro | Refrain | Verse | Refrain (solo) | Verse |
                  | Refrain | Outro (with complete ending)
        CD: "Rubber Soul", Track 8 (Parlophone CDP7 46440-2)
  Recorded: 4thth November 1965, Abbey Road 2
UK-release: 3rd December 1965 (LP "Rubber Soul")
US-release: 21st February 1966 (B Single / "Nowhere Man")

General Points of Interest


Style and Form

  Next note This almost parodistic homage to the same C&W style the Beatles had earlier covered in the likes of "Act Naturally" is a typical Ringo "vehicle" if ever there was one right down to the scenario of sad-and-lonely betrayal described in the lyrics.
  Next note The form is a folksy strict alternation of refrains and verses, the key is the ever popular choice for the Beatles of E Major, and the tempo is fast — fast enough that 2/2 might be a more accurate designation of the meter than the 4/4 that I have chosen.

Melody and Harmony

  Next note The basic materials are relatively simple all around:
  • The melody essentially noodles around stepwise within a five note range. The mode is almost purely Major, though with an occasional hint of the bluesy minor third, as in the final phrase of the refrain (on the words "in your mind").
  • The harmony is essentially limited to the set of I, IV, and V chords, though some interest is added by the big play made out of the "4-3" suspension on V (found at the climax of each refrain) and the use of the minor iv in the verses.


  Next note Ringo's single-tracked lead is mixed in stereo to the far left, while John and Paul's backing vocals are equally far to the right. The backing parts for the refrain are quite idiomatically twangy for the context, though the verses feature a subdued "oohing" that is surprisingly, for the context, reminiscent of what we just saw in "Michelle".
  Next note The lead guitar part is recorded with an almost surreal clarity for its time, rather suggestive of today's "direct to digital" sound quality. It's a shame, therefore, that the riff playing on this track is not up to the standard of the recorded sonics.
  Next note Speaking of which, 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.

Section-by-Section Walkthrough



  Next note The intro consists of a three-beat pickup plus four simple bars which establish, in good introductory form, the home key and the overall instrumental style and texture for the song:
      |E           |B           |E           |-           |
   E:  I            V            I

   [Figure 83.1]


  Next note The refrain is twenty measures long and is unusually made up of five phrases equal in length, making for a poetic pattern of AB-AB-C:
       -------------------------- 2X --------------------------
      |E     |-     |-     |-     ||E     |-     |A     |-     ||
   E:  I                                          IV

      |B            |-             |E            |-            |
       V                            I

   [Figure 83.2]
  Next note Ironically, this five-phrase structure is one of the few non-routine features of this otherwise routine little song, yet it's a device whose handling here is a bit too clever by half, and winds up at the root of what I consider to be a close to fatal lack of forward drive.
  Next note The asymmetry and extra length inherent in a five-line stanza requires a special compensatory effort to prevent it from coming off as stilted. In this case, unfortunately, the opposite seems perversely true: i.e. all five phrases are on the short side with long breathing spaces of close to two full measures following on each of them, a gesture that inhibits both connectivity between successive phrases as well as momentum from building over the series of them. Furthermore, the ultra simplicity of the chord progression, further exaggerated by the slow pace of the harmonic rhythm, only makes the first problem worse.
  Next note For me, the almost unrecoverable low point of the section is the moment in which you realize (even if you're not a musicologist your mind does register this subconsciously, I dare suggest) that, oh no!, they're actually gonna repeat all of the first eight measures all over again instead of moving onward. The "4-3" suspension over the V chord in the last phrase adds a well needed dose of last-minute intensification, but it's awfully belated. Try this experiment — eliminate the repeat of those eight bars and try what's left of the refrain as a twelve-bar form and see how much better it flows.


  Next note The verse is an asymmetrical fourteen measures long, and is built out of four phrases in an AABC poetic pattern:
         ----------------------------- 2X ----------------------------
  Tune: |B  B  B   G#   |A  G#  F#  E   |F#  F#  F#  G# |A            |
Chords: |E              |-              |a              |-            |
     E:  I                               iv

        |A  A  A   A    |G# F#  E   F#  |G#
        |a              |B              |E              |-            |
         iv              V               I

        |B              |-              |

   [Figure 83.3]
  Next note The harmonic syncopation of sustaining the a minor chord over the phrase boundary of measures 8 and 9 is another source of the kind of drag I've cited against the refrain. Nevertheless, there are a couple of helpfully counter-balancing factors in this section: the harmonic rhythm picks up a bit here, and the foreshortened final phrase (only two measures) lends a mild effect of acceleration; run the experiment in your head of allowing the "C" phrase to be rounded out to a more usual full four measures and not how badly it schleps.
  Next note The melody provides a modicum of added interest in this section in the form of some appoggiaturas. The F#'s and G#'s against the a-minor chord are especially pungent.

Solo Refrain Section

  Next note The underlying flaws of the vocal refrains are further exacerbated in this solo.
  Next note I'd assume they were trying to be clever by singing all the way through the first phrase of this section and then leaving the lead guitar to continue on by himself, but for my money, this gesture backfires by throwing off the listener's sense of the section's structure. I have trouble hearing the beginning of the solo itself as the second phrase of the refrain, as opposed to the first phrase of a new section, in which case the slow harmonic rhythm and overall weak harmonic teleology of the section don't help at all get me re-oriented.
  Next note Furthermore, the style and content of the guitar riffs, which sound fine when used as they are during the rest of the song as obbligato fills between sung phrase, sound here like disjointed non-sequiturs rather than a solo with a beginning, middle, and end.
  Next note Again, the "4-3" play on the V chord helps things end up on a decent footing but there's a good eight measures or so before then where you, as a listener, are left drifting without a clear sense of formal context.


  Next note The coda this time finds the group vamping on the I chord for an additional four measures, ending finally with one last chord that's allowed to reverberate almost until it dies out on its own. Beatles' tracks to this point in time tend to generally exhibit a rapid fade-out of the last chord imposed during the final production mixdown. Even in this song where the reverb is allowed to go on for a second or two longer than average you can hear where the faders are applied if you listen.
  Next note 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.

Some Final Thoughts

  Next note If you grew up in the States, then this selection was self-effacingly tucked away near the back end of the "Yesterday and Today" album in between what had been the two "A sides" of the "We Can Work It Out" / "Day Tripper" single. But on the CD, as in the original British lineup, you flip over the record, so to speak, and instead of hearing "It's Only Love" (an expectation which dies very hard for those who have their pubescent experiences permanently downloaded like a TSR) you get this potboiler; and a bit of a letdown.
  Next note 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. Lewisohn's discovery that the song originally dates as far back as the Pre-Beatles / Quarrymen days makes some excuse for it, I suppose, but sure doesn't make the song itself any better.
  Next note What I do find difficult to completely fathom is how, for all the hurry against a deadline which underlied the production of the album, they had the self-restraint to reject "12-Bar Original" (ironically recorded at the same session) yet let this one through even though it is in some respects only marginally better.
  Next note Of course, I suppose if you want to be mean, you can look to the unique attribution of this song (Lennon, McCartney and Starkey) and blame it all on Ringo. Hey, if the group dynamic portrayed in "Hard Day's Night" is anywhere close to true, I suppose that in this case the group itself might have done precisely that; i.e. blame Ritchie :-)
  Alan (060693#83)
Copyright © 1993 by Alan W. Pollack. All Rights Reserved. This article may be reproduced, retransmitted, redistributed and otherwise propagated at will, provided that this notice remains intact and in place.