Neil Aspinall

Apple Manager Extraordinaire

Neil Aspinall (at left) with The Beatles
John Happy Hopkins/Getty Images

If there’s one person who could claim to have been with The Beatles for the longest time it would have to be Neil Aspinall.

It's a name you may not immediately be familiar with because, throughout his nearly fifty years' work for and with The Beatles, Neil Aspinall was steadfastly determined to stay out of the limelight. But he was an influential and important player in the history of the band, and of their record company Apple Records, which he ran for almost forty years. Of all the people who surrounded them, Aspinall was the one constant presence on the long and winding road that is the Beatles' story.

How He Met the Beatles 

Neil Aspinall was a young, budding Liverpool accountancy student in the late 1950’s/early1960’s. That is until he met the Beatles. He'd become part of their entourage even before Ringo Starr joined the band. And he stayed close throughout their meteoric rise and became one of their most highly trusted employees.

Aspinall was a key member of the small backup team that took care of the band’s every need. That led to him eventually taking charge of their Apple Corps empire, a position he held (apart from one small break) for almost forty years, and he stayed at the helm until the day he retired in 2007.

Neil Aspinall died soon after retirement at the age of 66, a victim of lung cancer.

Meeting Drummer Pete Best 

Perhaps ironically, Neil Aspinall first became friendly with The Beatles via their then drummer, Pete Best. Aspinall lived with the Best family as a boarder in the family home. However, Pete Best was soon to be unceremoniously dropped by the band in favor of a newer player that they liked - one Ringo Starr. That didn't stop Aspinall continuing in the Beatle fold though. To him, the sacking was a business decision and his approach was to keep the two (friendships and business) separate.

Born in Wales in 1941, Neil Aspinall grew up in Liverpool. He studied at the Liverpool Institute, the same college that George Harrison and Paul McCartney attended, even sitting in on some of the same classes as them. He started to work for them initially by putting up posters and flyers around town advertising the band’s concert gigs, but as the popularity of The Beatles grew so too did his connection and dedication to the group. In 1961 he decided to toss in the accountancy career to work for them full time, along with another long-time Beatle employee Mal Evans, as their roadie and fixer. Aspinall told music journalist and writer Paul du Noyer how it all started: “I had this little beaten-up old van. I was training to be an accountant so I only got £2.50 a week, which wasn’t really enough to live on. So to drive the band around and get £1.00 per gig, it was found money.” Especially when that band was sometimes doing three performances per day. “Gradually," he said, "I wasn’t doing accountancy any more…”

Keeping a Low Profile

Despite working for the most well-known entertainers in the world, Aspinall always kept an extremely low profile. He never sought the limelight, in fact, he actively and purposely stayed well out of it. Despite being a Beatle insider, a trusted confidante privy to the inner workings of this famous group, he never broke the trust that they had in him. Right up to the very end he never wrote a memoir or spilled the beans on The Beatles. “I’m very shy”, he told du Noyer, “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.”

More recently it was Aspinall, as boss of Apple Records and responsible for shepherding the Beatle legacy, who was blamed for the very slow pace of Beatle-related releases. He steadfastly ignored the cries from fans for a re-issue of the Let It Be film or the legendary Shea Stadium concert footage to be made officially available for example. But it needs to be remembered that while he was in charge of Apple, Aspinall could do nothing unless his board of directors (that is the surviving Beatles, plus Yoko Ono and later Olivia Harrison) unanimously agreed.

He did, however, supervise some key releases including the Yellow Submarine Songtrack; the Let It Be – Naked project (which removed all the choirs and strings from the original release); The Capitol Albums box sets; and the first Live at the BBC CD and LP sets.

His Biggest Project

Perhaps Aspinall’s biggest project though – and the most important – was the ambitious Beatles Anthology book, TV series, Video/DVD sets, and the three double CD volumes of music telling their story from their perspective – from the earliest beginnings through to their final songs. The Anthology sets contain a myriad of demos, rarities, and outtakes and remain something of a feast for fans. It was probably Neil Aspinall’s crowning achievement from a content perspective.

The Anthology project would never have come about without Aspinall beavering away in the background. Firstly, at the time the band was dissolving (during the recording of Abbey Road), it was he who secured as much original footage, documents, tapes and photos as he could. He stopped it all being lost in the maelstrom. That all stayed on the shelf for twenty years. Then in 1990, he talked to the three surviving Beatles and Yoko Ono about pulling it together to tell The Beatles’ story. They all said yes, and so off he went to do it.

Other Big Achievements

Neil Aspinall’s other big achievements, realized over the course of many years, was to sort out the Beatles’ complicated legal and business affairs following the split of the group. In effect, Aspinall helped them to regain control of as many of their rights as was possible – and Aspinall took on some big and time-consuming legal battles in the process. He was determined to bring as much as he could of "The Beatles" back in under the umbrella of Apple Corps. That meant small things like owning the rights to individual images and film clips of the band and enforcing their copyright aggressively, working through the minefield of their different recording contracts and royalty deals, through to taking on giants like Apple Computers numerous times in long-running trademark court battles.

That Apple Computers dispute started over the very use of name “Apple” but drifted into Apple Computer’s right to be involved in the music business in any way at all. The fight with Apple was a fight that Aspinall ultimately lost – but along the way, he had many other successes. Even so, while the details of the final settlement remain confidential to this day, losing to Apple Computers ultimately brought the Beatles' Apple Corps great wealth. Primarily it opened the door to Beatle music being available to download via iTunes for the first time. Commenting at the time Aspinall said, "It is great to put this dispute behind us and move on. The years ahead are going to be very exciting times for us. We wish Apple Inc. every success and look forward to many years of peaceful co-operation with them."

His Favorite Beatles Music

When asked about his own favorite Beatle music Neil Aspinall once nominated that he liked pretty much everything from the Rubber Soul album onwards. He was with the band in the studio constantly during the recording process and so it was not uncommon for him to be occasionally invited to contribute. For example, Aspinall was part of the chorus of singers heard on the song 'Yellow Submarine', played harmonica on 'Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite', the guiro (a Latin percussion instrument) on 'Strawberry Fields', and on the song 'Within You Without You' he was drafted in to play an Indian drone instrument called the tamboura.

Given his propensity to stay well-and-truly out of the limelight, one can only imagine that these offers to become part of the Beatles' recorded legacy were not all that welcome. Neil Aspinall was always wanting to blend into the background and simply make sure that everything was as good as it could be for the four famous musicians he unswervingly served throughout his working life.