Neil Aspinall, who died in 2008, was a man whose story intertwined with that of his employers, The Beatles, for nearly half a century. He was their intimate friend. We can only wonder what Beatle secrets he took with him to the grave.
I met him several times and always found him pretty close-lipped. My first encounter was at the Apple HQ in Knightsbridge, where I was introduced by The Beatles’ affable press man Derek Taylor (who was back at Apple to help with the Anthology project). It was Derek, gamely trying to break the ice, who discovered that Neil and I came from the same street in Liverpool.
A little while later I was granted a rare interview with Neil, again at the Apple office. The piece ran in Mojo, October 1996.
When even George Martin calls you “the Fifth Beatle” then you have a pretty good claim to the title. But Neil Aspinall doesn’t want it. For 35 years he has been closer to the band that anyone else has. But he dislikes publicity. He scuttles from the spotlight like a bug whose stone has been upturned.
He’s been in charge of Apple, The Beatles’ company, since it began in 1967, except for the brief interlude when their affairs were handled by Allen Klein. Before that he was their road manager and all-round Mr Fixit. When The Beatles were a baby-band, Neil Aspinall would ferry them through the Mersey Tunnel to local gigs, humping their primitive gear past squealing fans and scowling Teddy Boys. He drove them down to London for their first auditions with Decca and EMI. He’d been at school with Paul McCartney and knew George Harrison, a boy in the year below. Later on, as a trainee accountant, he lived in digs at the house of Pete Best, the group’s original drummer.
Throughout the pandemonium of Beatlemania, under the guidance of Brian Epstein, the self-effacing Aspinall kept their show on the road with the help of Mal Evans, another old Liverpool buddy, a former bouncer at the Cavern. Epstein died in 1967; tragically, Evans himself was killed in 1976 after a shooting incident with the LA police.
In the unhappy years when The Beatles had ceased to trust anybody, including one another, they still trusted Neil. He is the one constant presence in their story. After the group split up, and Apple vacated its famous Savile Row HQ, Aspinall carried on, patiently untangling their business problems in a succession of rented premises around London. At one point Apple’s staff was down to just three people.
“Poor old Neil,” McCartney once remarked to me, after yet another phone call to the Apple office. “He’s been a real solid guy for us. But I don’t think we’ve always been good for him.” Decades of hard, loyal service had been tough on his health.
But Neil Aspinall’s finest hour was still to come. He’d begun compiling archive footage of The Beatles in 1969. By 1989, when assorted contractual snags were cleared, he started work in earnest on what has become The Beatles Anthology. The TV series was only a truncated version — cut for the needs of the US networks — of the full 10-hour film. It’s finally released this September and October, as eight videos, around the same time as Volume III of the Anthology CDs.
Today, if Aspinall feels pride and relief at the completion of this gargantuan project — as well he might — he betrays no sign. A stocky man, both quiet and forthright, he strolls around Apple’s smart new base in Knightsbridge with an unfussy air. And if he ever wore a moptop like his masters’ (and the photographs are few), it’s long gone. His eyebrows, however, are bushier than ever. “I don’t really have a job title,” he shrugs, settling in his office and eyeing the tape recorder uneasily. “I guess I’m just manager of Apple. When the four guys asked me to do this, when they got rid of Allen Klein, they basically asked me to do ‘it’. But ‘it’ was never defined.”
Apple is a tighter ship than it was in the old days, presumably.
Sure. There’s a lot of controls in place. I can’t go off and do what I like. The Beatles were always like an inverted democracy. If one of them doesn’t want to do something then generally it doesn’t get done. I have to pass everything I do by them. So there are no surprises. Everybody knows what’s going on.
You still seem to have a pretty small team.
That’s a carry-through from when we were on the road. There was four Beatles, me and Mal, and a press officer. It meant that everyone knew what their role was, you knew where the buck stopped. If something went wrong, there wasn’t 80 people to search among to find who made the goof.
You knew Paul and George at school, but Pete Best was your mate, wasn’t he?
Yeah, but I only met Pete when I was about 18. His mother ran the Casbah Club and that’s where I met him. I left home and I ended up staying at Pete’s place, so that made us closer. When the four of them, with Stu [Sutcliffe], were going to Hamburg they asked Pete to go as their drummer. And when they came back and needed transport, I had this little beaten-up old van. I was training to be an accountant so I only got £2.50 and some luncheon vouchers a week, which wasn’t really enough to live on. So to drive the band around and get £1 a gig, it was found money.
Was money the first motivation, rather than the crack?
It was for the money. But at the same time, I’d seen them perform when they came back from Hamburg and they were a really good band. They certainly impressed me.
What was the drill? You’d start with Pete in the van then pick up the others?
No. I’d normally just take the equipment to the gig and everybody made their own way there. I’d leave the equipment there and go home and do my accountancy correspondence course. Then I’d go back and pick the gear up. If they wanted a lift I’d drop them off wherever. It started that simply.
You moved to London when they did?
Sure. It wasn’t that fast. They got more and more gigs. Gradually I wasn’t doing the accountancy any more. Then they got bigger and more successful and when they moved down, I moved down. I was with The Beatles, doing whatever needed to be done.
How did Mal Evans become part of the set-up?
We knew Mal because he was on the Cavern door. I was ill with a temperature. We were due to come down to London for some radio stuff. In the Cavern, I was, [groans] Oh, I’m not going to be able to make this. So I told them and Brian, I can’t drive to London tomorrow. So they say, “Well you’ll have to get somebody else, won’t you?” No sympathy [laughs]. And I didn’t have a clue who I could get. I went up the Cavern steps into Mathew Street just to get some fresh air, and Mal was standing there. So I just said to him, What are you doing for the next couple of days? Would you like to drive The Beatles to London? “Yeah sure.” So I say, Hold on a minute. Went back into the Cavern, into the dressing room: Hey, Mal’ll drive you to London. And they all go, “OK.”
Six or seven months later it was really getting too much for one person to handle, and I said to them and Brian that I really need some help. And they said, “Well, we’ll see if Mal will do it.” So we asked Mal and he gave up his job as a telephone technician. He drove the van and looked after the equipment after that.
Was it tough for you when they sacked Pete Best? You were close to him — did you have a conflict of loyalty?
It was a little strange because I was close to Pete. But it wasn’t a conflict of loyalty. Brian wanted to see him, I don’t think Pete could drive at the time, so I drove him into town to see Brian. I was in the record store looking at records, and he came down and said he’d been fired. He was in a state of shock, really. We went over to the Grapes pub in Mathew Street, had a pint. And I just said, I’m going now. And Pete said, “I’m staying here for a while.” I just left. That night I think we had a gig somewhere over the water, Birkenhead side. I had all the gear in the van. So when it was time to go, I don’t think Pete had even come back from town. I just got in the van and drove to the gig. I think that John, Paul and George might have been slightly surprised. But, hey, I’m turning up, this is my gig. What happens outside of that is nothing to do with me.
You’re down in London, Beatlemania takes off. Was that a shock or did it build gradually?
I’m just trying to think back. If you look at the queues outside the Cavern when The Beatles were on, they were right the way down Mathew Street, and that was beginning to happen in various places up North. It just got bigger and bigger, very fast, but it wasn’t like one day there was nobody and the next day there were 10,000.
When you started the big tours, that must have been a strange experience?
It was certainly nerve-wracking for me, because every time we went anywhere it was new in terms of what you had to cope with. We went on the Helen Shapiro tour and the first theatre we got to, the tour manager was a guy called Johnny Clapton. I remember just standing to the side of the stage about 3 or 4 in the afternoon when we got there, and Johnny Clapton was saying, “Who’s The Beatles’ road manager?” I’d never heard the term before, so I didn’t answer. So he ended up saying, “Is there anybody with The Beatles?” So I said, Yeah, I am! “OK, you’re their road manager.” Oh, OK! I still don’t know what a road manager is, quite frankly. But that’s where the term came from for me.
And he said, “Have you got the lighting plot?” What lighting plot? “Well you know, for the spotlights and the footlights and the sidelights. The lights change with each number.” I said, No. That was not within my experience. So he said, “Give me the playlist. I’ll do the lights first house, after that you’re on your own.” Now, for a 20-year-old kid that was a big deal. Suddenly I had to do all the stage lighting. And I did it, second house, probably very amateurishly. But after that I got into it. The problem was that every theatre that we went to, the colours of the lights depended on what the pantomime had been the previous Christmas.
I wasn’t really putting on a light show, it was just having different colours. Reds and oranges, like fire, for an uptempo number, blues and greens for a slow number, then combinations of that in between. Sometimes the hardest part was the people who did the spotlights, because they were normally the guys that operated the movies during the week. Occasionally they’d be on John when Paul was singing or vice versa. I was constantly on the microphone: Put the light the other way round! That was all part of the gig.
When we went on tour to foreign countries it was always like that. When you got to somewhere like Shea Stadium there was a lot of police and security and press and getting in and out of the place and a lot of other stuff you had to deal with.
Did that get you down, as well as the group, in the last days of touring?
I was tired. We’d been doing it for a long time. But I don’t think it got me down in the same way as it got them down. They were the centre of attention wherever they went and it was always people wanting a piece of them or their autograph, or an interview or whatever. If they’d decided to keep on touring, that would have been OK with me.
Were you at a loose end when they did stop touring?
No. Mal Evans did the amplifiers, that was his job, he set them up on stage and looked after the guitars and made sure everything was working. There was a great deal of trust among everybody about all this. They’d run across that field to get on stage at Shea Stadium. They’d plug their amplifiers in, plug their guitars in, and they knew that they were going to work, because Mal made sure of it. That was his gig.
So he did ask me, when they stoppped touring in ’66, since we weren’t on the road any more, “Neil, what do you think we’re going to be doing this time next year?” And in that period of time, The Beatles did Strawberry Fields, Penny Lane, as singles and videos, Sgt. Pepper, All You Need Is Love; Brian Epstein died; they met the Maharishi; we made Magical Mystery Tour. So when you ask me, was I at a loose end? The answer is No, there was a lot going on.
Did you spend much time with them in the studio?
I was there all the time. For them, they were working, they were composing, recording, and on occasions that could get boring for me. But I learned to play chess with Ringo.
Did you ever chip in on the records?
Maybe I chipped in twice or three times in 8,000 recordings. For example with Yellow Submarine everybody in the studio sang “We all live in a Yellow Submarine.” So I sang with everybody. I think there might have been another occasion when I banged a tambourine, but they were only minor things.
You never contributed a line or a word here or there?
Yeah, on a few occasions. They’d be searching for a line, various people would throw out a line. Not that it was ever used, but everybody would do that.
Apple Corps was set up before it began as a label. Did they just say to you, “You’re in charge”?
No, I don’t think anything is that simple where Apple is concerned. Apple got set up when Brian was still alive, early in ’67. I think it was more music publishing. Then Brian died and there was really nobody looking after The Beatles’ business interests, because Brian had done all of that. So there was various people were nominated or put themselves forward to run it.
NEMS was Brian’s company, with offices and everything, but The Beatles ended up with nobody. They didn’t have offices, they didn’t have anybody working for them other than Mal Evans and myself. And they decided that they would set up their own organisation and we started off with little offices in Wigmore Street, and brought in various staff to run the record label, like Pete Asher. We brought Derek Taylor over from America. Like I said, a lot of people were nominated or put themselves forward. But there didn’t seem to be any unanimous choice here.
So I said to them, foolishly I guess, Look, I’ll do it until you find somebody that you want to do it. That was the basis I was doing it on when we went into Savile Row.
It must have been a steep learning curve, taking over The Beatles’ business?
Well, we didn’t have single piece of paper. No contracts. The lawyer, the accountants and Brian, whoever, had that. Maybe The Beatles had been given copies of various contracts, I don’t know. I know that when Apple started I didn’t have single piece of paper. I didn’t know what the contract was with EMI, or with the film people or the publishers or anything at all. So it was a case of building up the filing system, finding out what was going on while we were trying to continue doing something.
Then Allen Klein came on the scene, and Lee and John Eastman came on the scene, and I don’t want to get into that, but I got off the scene and let them get on with it. Because that was the business and it wasn’t something that I really wanted to do.
After the split, did you think that was end of your involvement?
When the band split up? Well it wasn’t like they were together on Friday and split up on Saturday, it took quite a long period of time. It was traumatic for everybody, including me. I didn’t have a clue what was going on or what I was going to do. And in all of that there was Allen Klein and lawsuits starting. I really started making movies and music for movies.
I put together the music for That’ll Be The Day [the David Essex/Ringo film; its soundtrack featured Keith Moon, Vivian Stanshall and others]. Then I was making a little movie out at George’s place. But I never finished it, because they fired Allen Klein and asked me to do this.
Was it hard to keep in with all four Beatles, amid the legal crossfire? Was your policy to be completely neutral?
No, what happened was that John, George and Ringo asked me if I’d run Apple. I said OK, but as long as it’s OK with Paul. Because I wasn’t going to get into any three-on-one situation. I’d always been with the four of them. So I rang up Paul and said, Hey, the other three have asked me do it, is that OK with you? He said “Sure, that’s fine.” So I was back. I’m working for the four of them. Now, the individual battles that you just mentioned, might be going on between their individual advisors, if you like, but I was neutral to that, I was looking after the interests of all four of them, inside Apple, as The Beatles.
After that there was a long period when nothing appeared to go on. We used to be amazed to learn that Apple was still in existence.
I know. People used to say that. They’d ask me, and I’d say I’m running Apple, and it was “Oh, is that still around?” [Laughs.]
Was it a strange time, running this organisation with nothing underneath it as there had been before?
Hey, there was a lot going on. First of all, when I started running Apple again there was still the internal lawsuits between Paul and the other three. The second thing that had to be done was Allen Klein. There was that lawsuit with him had to be dealt with.
After that it was looking at various contractual commitments. Trying to sort out the legalities of what was going on with our record company, that took from 1978 to ’89. Sorting out what had happened with Yellow Submarine. What had happened with those 39 cartoons that had been made? What was the deal? There was a lot of stuff. So the hiatus period that you’re talking about was really pulling as many strings together as you could, so we had some idea what was going on. A lot of it was establishing what you owned and what you didn’t own.
You began what was then called the Long And Winding Road project very early on, didn’t you?
In ’69, in all the chaos, the traumas — things were falling apart but they were still making Abbey Road — Paul called me saying “You should collect as much of the material that’s out there, get it together before it disappears.” So I started to do that, got in touch with all the TV stations around the world, checked what we had in our own library, like Let It Be, Magical Mystery Tour, the promo clips, what have you. Got newsreel footage in, lots and lots of stuff. We edited something together that was about an hour and three quarters long. But The Beatles had split up by then, so there was really no chance of anything happening with it. I sent them a copy of it each which they all quite liked, then I put it on the shelf. And it stayed on the shelf from 1971 till ’89, about 20 years.
So in ’89 the logjam broke, because the legal difficulties were cleared.
The prolonged legal situation with our record company was settled, much to everybody’s relief, and we put out the Red and Blue albums [the CD versions of the two Beatle compilations]. It was round about then, in 1990, that I talked to the guys and Yoko and suggested maybe trying to put together The Beatles’ story. I had no idea how to do that, the one thing I did know is that I didn’t want a commentator. They all said “Yeah, OK Neil, are you going to do it?” And I said Yeah and off we went. I knew we had to do everything in-house because most of the stuff with The Beatles is piratable. So we set up our own facility in Shepherds Bush. Then somebody said, “Oh it’s like an anthology that you’re doing?” OK, then it became The Beatles Anthology.
Was the making of this film the origin of the idea to do the Anthology CDs as well?
Might have been the other way around. It’s confusing because everything happened at once. The idea of having the musical element was obvious, because that’s what The Beatles are about. Even then we had to archive the music. I was amazed that Paul had That’ll Be The Day, the first track that they’d ever done [as The Quarry Men, in 1958]. Duff Lowe, their pianist, had kept it. I think everybody got to keep it for a week. There was only one copy, so maybe John had it first, then Paul, then George, then Colin Hanton the drummer, and maybe Duff Lowe was the last one to get it for a week. But he had nobody to pass it on to, so he just kept it. Twenty years later he still had it, he was going to put it in an auction, he phoned Paul and he said, “Hey, I’ve still got this thing, d’you want it?” So Paul bought it off him.
What prompted the idea to make new records, using John’s tapes?
The idea of interviewing the three of them and using interviews of John’s was there. But it was needing some incidental music as part of the Anthology, which would give them the opportunity to make some music without any pressure. This idea developed into, If it was going to be The Beatles then it had to have John in it. The only way you could have John is if you used a piece of music that he was actually playing on. So that’s where it developed from, to Free As A Bird and Real Love.
Is there more unreleased stuff in the pipeline?
No. The Beatles were always generous in terms of musical content. They’d have say 14 tracks on an album and if they put out a single it wasn’t on the album, et cetera. And with these Anthologies George Martin has trawled through everything, taken the best stuff and they’ve put it all out. They haven’t left stuff there, thinking, “A-ha! We can put that out later.” Or: “If we do a box set of the Anthology in a couple of years’ time then we can have a few bonus tracks on there.” The bonus tracks are already on there.
Which Beatles music are you fondest of?
I really like it from Rubber Soul, Revolver onwards. But it’s difficult to say, because some of the early stuff brings back memories for me of the Cavern. They also bring back a couple of little regrets, I always wish that they’d recorded What’d I Say? They used to do a great version of that.
Did you ever feel left behind by what they were doing, as everyone else did? People thought, they’ve lost the plot and gone so weird, growing moustaches, going off with Maharishi.
I guess I was close enough to them to be able to follow the plot.
Did you have a policy of keeping out of the limelight?
Yes. I’m very shy. Or I was in those days. I also thought that all the hoop-la that was going on was not because of me. It was because of them and what they were doing. People didn’t want me in the shot, thank you very much. So I stayed out of it.
There is a tendency around the famous for others to bask in reflected glory.
Well that’s for other people to say. Quite honestly, the only reason we’re talking today is because of The Beatles, it’s not because of me. That’s the bottom line, and I’ve been aware of that from the very beginning.
Even George Martin describes you as the fifth Beatle. How do you feel about that?
Oh, I keep trying to lay that on George! There is no fifth Beatle. I think if there was such a thing, it would be Pete Best or Stu Sutcliffe, not some outsider who wasn’t in the band. A ridiculous suggestion.