John Lennon and Paul McCartney made an agreement as teenagers: every song they wrote would be credited to them both, regardless of who wrote the song and to what extent. This was an unbreakable bond, to the extent that even a solo Lennon song like ‘Give Peace a Chance’ was originally credited to Lennon/McCartney.
There were a few exceptions, however. McCartney and George Harrison share songwriting credit on the early Quarrymen track ‘In Spite of All the Danger’, while McCartney’s name appears on its own for Badfinger’s 1969 single ‘Come and Get It’. There are a few songs in The Beatles’ catalogue that includes all four members as writers, including ‘Flying’ and ‘Dig It’, but there are almost no variations beyond those.
Except for one notable track: ‘What Goes On’ from Rubber Soul, which is credited to Lennon/McCartney/Starkey, the latter being the real-life surname of Ringo Starr. Lennon originally wrote the song in the late 1950s, while The Beatles were still The Quarrymen, and the song found use as the band sought a song for Starr to sing.
“That was an early Lennon written before The Beatles when we were The Quarrymen, or something like that,” Lennon told David Sheff in 1980. “And resurrected with a middle eight thrown in, probably with Paul’s help, to give Ringo Starr a song and also to use the bits, because I never like to waste anything.”
McCartney helped complete the song, with additional lyrical assistance from Starr. When asked at a 1966 press conference what specifically he contributed to the song, Starr jokingly told the reporters that he added “about five words to ‘What Goes On’ and I haven’t done a thing since.”
“I used to wish that I could write songs like the others – and I’ve tried, but I just can’t,” Starr later reflected. “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’.”
According to band assistant Neil Aspinall, there is a demo version of the song that features just McCartney on all instruments. “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,” Aspinall told The Beatles Book magazine in 1966. “Then Ringo listened to the finished tape and added his own ideas before the recording session.”
Following the inclusion of ‘What Goes On’ on Rubber Soul, Starr would begin to get solo songwriting credit for his contributions, including on ‘Don’t Pass Me By’ and ‘Octopus’s Garden’. Except for cases where all four Beatles were listed, the Lennon/McCartney team never again shared credit for songs with outsiders, making ‘What Goes On’ the first and last Lennon/McCartney/Starkey composition.