While New York DJ “Murray The K” may have claimed the title of “The Fifth Beatle” at the height of Beatlemania in a shameless act of self-promotion, in reality, if any man could claim the title, it was Neil Aspinall, who died recently at age 66, according to the Telegraph:
One of his last tasks as their eminence grise had been to remaster the group’s back catalogue for legal downloading on the internet. Aspinall’s involvement with the Beatles dated from 1960 when the group’s original drummer, Pete Best, asked him to become their driver.
Although he protested when Best (his best friend) was replaced by Ringo Starr, he remained with the band, and when a brawny Cavern Club bouncer called Mal Evans was taken on in 1963 to hump their instruments in and out of their battered Commer van, Aspinall found himself in the role of personal assistant.
As such, he became the Beatles’ gatekeeper, guardian of their privacy, security, secrets, and eventually the group’s fortunes, over which, as managing director of Apple from January 1968, he exercised a shrewd stewardship. A quietly-spoken but tough negotiator, he was credited with having – single-handedly – turned the Beatles into the world’s highest-earning band and, by extension, one of its biggest brands.
In the mid-1960s, at the height of Beatlemania, Aspinall’s responsibilities as the group’s road manager extended far beyond checking their equipment, stage costumes, meals, venues and accommodation: with Mal Evans, he judiciously vetted the groupies, and saw to the day-to-day needs of the Beatles themselves as they were shuttled from plane to limousine to hotel. “It was an unattractive life,” he admitted, “and it went on for years. But at least I could go out. They were trapped.” He even stood in for George Harrison, when the guitarist was ill, at a camera rehearsal for the band’s first appearance on American television.
Aspinall’s role changed dramatically with the death of the Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, in August 1967, and he effectively took the group over, although he apparently turned down a formal offer of the job from John Lennon. According to one account, the Beatles’ musical guru George Martin was unhappy at the idea of Aspinall replacing the public-school-educated Epstein because he lacked the social qualifications needed to speak to the executives at their recording company EMI.
As the group disintegrated, and the members eventually went their separate ways, Aspinall remained a trusted father figure to the famous foursome. Even when they were not speaking to each other he – as the honest broker – remained on good terms with all four.
His role post-Beatles became increasingly entrepreneurial: in 1995 he persuaded Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr to collaborate on three Anthology albums and the accompanying television documentary, which took him five years to compile. It was Aspinall’s concept that led to the release in 2000 of the Beatles’ greatest hits album, Beatles 1, which has since sold 30 million copies.
There’s a direct line from Beatlemania to the most pretentious and overwrought aspects of the 1960s, but there’s also hours and hours of brilliant music as well, and short of George Martin, who was recording and actively shaping the Beatles’ output, Aspinall had the best seat in the house to watch its production.