Neil Aspinall | Economist.com
Yet there seemed to be not one jealous bone in Neil Aspinall’s body; which was why, for almost half a century, he was factotum, doorkeeper and man-of-all-work for four friends who became, in the words of Philip Norman, their biographer, “the greatest engine for human happiness the modern world has known”. From driving the battered old Commer, with hard benches back and front and his charges sleeping among the amps, he progressed to a tour bus and then to a chauffeured limousine with blacked-out windows, forcing its way through crowds of weeping teenage girls. From fetching everyone’s fish and chips, slathered with vinegar not ketchup, he moved up to more particular orders: a one-egg omelette for Ringo, cheese-and-cucumber sandwiches for George, and for John caviar and chocolate cake. In time, as chief executive of the Beatles’ company, Apple Corps, he acquired a chef and a dining room at his office in Savile Row.
HE WAS brighter than they were. He had eight O-levels, where they mustered hardly any between them. He was richer: in 1961 he earned £2.50 a week as a trainee accountant in Liverpool, enough to have saved up for a second-hand van, while they had to scrape the fare for the 81 bus across town, lugging their guitars up to the top deck. In certain lights, with enough Brylcreem on his hair and enough tight black leather on his limbs, he was as handsome as they were too, like a young Tom Courtenay. Handsome enough to get Mona, his vivacious landlady and the mother of his friend Pete Best, who played drums for them, into bed and into the club, while the others still behaved like virgins.
He could have told stories, if he had wanted to. Of getting lost at night in the snow near Wolverhampton as he drove the band to their first big audition at Decca, which they failed. Of picking girls for them from the giggling, screaming candidates who milled at the stage doors, and forging hundreds of signatures on record sleeves and photos. Of playing host to John and Yoko Ono on their first date, considerately opening out the sofa bed, only to find that Yoko thought this “crude” and went off to sleep on the divan; or of what John said down the phone to him as his flat was raided by the police in October 1968, before he had managed to finish flushing the marijuana down the loo.
In the vans, buses and hotel rooms bits of paper piled up like confetti, carrying scraps of songs, and more scraps were stuffed in the pockets of the trousers Mr Aspinall carried to the cleaner’s. He did not keep them. When needed, he could thrum a tamboura for “Within You Without You” or plump out the chorus for “Yellow Submarine”, but he never dined out on it. No tell-all book was planned. His interest was not exploitation, but service. He was a handy man with a portable iron, and his job was ceaselessly to smooth out the creases in the story.
Luminous purple paint
Paul and George he knew from school: Paul in his art and English classes, George as a furtive fellow Woodbine-puffer behind the air-raid shelters. In a sense they were always members of the “Mad Lad gang”, larking together, or hurtling together down a back street as the Teds came after them. And for all the dazzle of the London Palladium or the Ed Sullivan Show, there was perhaps no more evocative venue for Mr Aspinall than the Casbah Club in the basement of his lover-landlady’s house, where behind the rhododendron hedges the Silver Beetles, as they then were, would play on Saturday nights. He had bought the benches and the luminous purple paint that glowed on the walls, and after the show he would guard the equipment. When Pete Best was ditched by the group in favour of Ringo, the most painful test of Mr Aspinall’s loyalty, he ended his affair with Pete’s mother and moved out.
As boss of Apple, a job he took in 1968 because the Beatles asked him, his loyalty was also tested. Having sorted out the bank accounts and established where the original contracts were, out of the mess left behind by their manager, Brian Epstein, he spent his years defending the brand from Apple Computer and winkling royalties out of EMI, while keeping an eye on media generally. Management was still chaotic and freeloaders legion; but the firm was so profitable, neck-high in gold and platinum discs, that no one seemed to care.
Most of all Mr Aspinall protected the songs, moving snail-like and suspiciously towards the modern age. He resisted first CDs, then compilations, then digital remastering, until he was at last convinced they would do the Beatles no harm. His erstwhile charges fell out, fell apart, skidded in and out of marriages, were shot down. Yet “Nell” remained at Apple until only a year before lung cancer silenced him, trusted by all of them, making sure the money and the name were safe.
In a rare moment of self-revelation, he once told Mr Norman that he had had a dream. He was running from an unseen pursuer, carrying a precious load of silver fish in his arms. No matter how fast he ran, his pursuer was running faster, and no matter how tightly he tried to guard the fish, they slithered away. In life, though always running, he did better than that.