Behind every great rock ‘n’ roll band, there is a story. In order to make that story click in all of its infinite nuances, an entire cast of characters is required. The leading players in a band cannot be solely responsible for making the entire picture fit; behind that picture are ‘the small people’, those who are willing to take the countless phone calls, file the endless paperwork, drive the van from one gig to the next, and see the inevitable drama unfold as it sometimes devours and destroys a band. The wonderful thing about Neil Aspinall, a childhood friend of George Harrison and Paul McCartney who would drive The Beatles’ tour van in the early days, and who later became the manager of Apple Corps, is that there was very little drama about him, and would take the band’s secrets to the grave.
As any band starting out, The Beatles did the local gig circuit in Liverpool in 1960. During these days, the Liverpool lads actually took public buses from one gig to the next. When their shows started becoming more frequent – even playing multiple concerts in one night – they needed better transportation. Neil Aspinall, who had become close friends with Pete Best (the original drummer for The Beatles), was living in Pete’s mother’s house who had turned the basement into a music venue called the Casbah Club. It was here that Aspinall became re-acquainted with his childhood friends and also began a relationship with Pete’s mother, Mona Best. Pete Best asked Aspinall to be The Beatles’ personal driver. Each member of The Beatles was charged five shillings per concert for the van trip.
“Our early van became the centre of attention every time it pulled up,” George Harrison commented on the van: “It was brush-painted red and grey and from head to foot was covered in graffiti – girls’ names, and things like ‘I love you, John’. It looked interesting, but the moment anybody saw it, they would feel free to write all over it.”
By July 1961, The Beatles had returned from their second trip to Hamburg, a circuit which many acts and groups were playing during those days such as Mott The Hoople, Rory Gallagher and more. Because of their growing popularity, The Beatles were playing and touring a lot more frequently now – and Neil Aspinall left his job as an accountant and became their full-time road manager.
During The Beatles’ trips to Hamburg, their relationship with Pete Best became strained. As Paul McCartney recalls, “While we were out there we started to see other groups and started to get a little bit dissatisfied with Pete, not massively, but just a little bit of dissatisfaction started to creep in.” Macca then elaborated with more detail as to what the cause of the strain exactly was: “He got to know this stripper. He and she were like boyfriend and girlfriend. She didn’t finish work until like four in the morning, and he’d stay up until she finished work and then he’d start his evening. So he’d roll back to us around 10 in the morning or something, and he’d be going to bed when we were getting up. I think that had something to do with a little bit of a rift creeping in.”
The rift would deepen and would eventually lead to Pete Best getting fired. This, of course, put a strain on Mona and Neil’s relationship, who by then even had a child together. While the details still remain somewhat unclear, Neil and Mona kept seeing each other even after Pete Best getting the sack – their relationship, however, was kept under wraps. According to some sources, Neil Aspinall, however loyal and faithful he was to the band, was not exactly treated with the utmost respect one would expect. After Pete Best was fired, Neil Aspinall, who was close with Pete, asked Lennon and McCartney why they had fired Pete, to which they allegedly responded: “It’s got nothing to do with you. You’re only the driver.”
Despite this, after they hired a new roadie and bodyguard, Mal Evans, Neil was promoted to more of a personal assistant to the Liverpool band. As a full-blown member of The Beatles’ inner-circle, he also worked closely with Brian Epstein in the managerial department. Calling him ‘a personal assistant’ might have even seemed somewhat underwhelming; he was a close confidant of the group – he might have even been called the real ‘Fifth Beatle’. When The Beatles arrived in the States for the first time to do their epochal Ed Sullivan Show, George Harrison had the flu and couldn’t make the day time rehearsals, so instead, Neil Aspinall stood in for him. Aspinall also had some musical input from time to time. He played tamboura on ‘Within You And Without You,’ harmonica on ‘Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite,’ percussion on ‘Magical Mystery Tour,’ and was also apart of the chorus for ‘Yellow Submarine.’
After the tragic death of Brian Epstein in 1967, The Beatles asked Neil Aspinall to be the manager of Apple Corps, which had been formed by 1968. As the whole organisation surrounding The Beatles was growing, the band and their executive department sought to expand and consolidate their multi-media corporation. By this point, Apple Corps had five divisions, electronics, film, publishing, records and retailing. George Martin, the producer of The Beatles, was reluctant to promote Aspinall to the position, as he thought that Neil lacked the social skills necessary to deal with label executives. Regardless, Aspinall was still promoted.
“We did not have one single piece of paper. No contracts,” Neil said about managing Apple Corps. “The lawyer, the accountants and Brian, whoever, had that. The Beatles had been given copies of various contracts, maybe – I don’t know. 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 a filing system, find out what was going on while we were trying to continue doing something.”
Neil Aspinall remained the manager of Apple Corps up until 2006, when he retired. He passed away the following year on this day, March 24th, taking with him a wealth of stories, commitment and loyalty to one of the most important groups in the history of popular culture.