March 24, 2008
Neil Aspinall, Beatles Aide, Dies at 66
By ALLAN KOZINN
Neil Aspinall, who left an accounting job to become the Beatles’ road manager when the group was still a local dance band and who went on to manage the band’s production and management company, Apple, died Sunday night in Manhattan. He was 66 and lived in Twickenham, England.
Geoff Baker, a spokesman for the family, said the cause was lung cancer. Mr. Aspinall had been undergoing treatment at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. He retired from Apple last year.
Of all the people in the Beatles’ orbit, Mr. Aspinall had the most durable relationship with the group. During one important period, in the 18 months after Ringo Starr had become the Beatles’ drummer, Mr. Aspinall was a crucial member of the group’s entourage. When the Beatles were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, George Harrison made a point of saying that Mr. Aspinall should be considered the fifth Beatle.
In November 1967, when the Beatles formed Apple to oversee their creative and business interests, they asked Mr. Aspinall, by then a trusted assistant of longstanding, to manage it. He never took a formal title, but he ran a company that, in its first years, included a record label, a film production company and electronics, publishing and retailing divisions. He also quickly put the Beatles’ own complicated contractual commitments in order.
Nevertheless, expenses at Apple spun out of control as the open kitchen and bar at the company’s Savile Row office began feeding and watering a parade of journalists, would-be Apple artists and hangers-on. When the American manager Allen Klein was brought in to sort out the Beatles’ finances, Mr. Klein fired much of the staff but was told by John Lennon, “Don’t touch Neil and Mal, they’re ours,” referring to Mr. Aspinall and his assistant, Mal Evans, who had also been with the group since its Liverpool days.
During the first 25 years at the head of Apple, Mr. Aspinall oversaw a succession of lawsuits. In one, not settled until 1974, Paul McCartney sued the other Beatles to dissolve their partnership. At the same time, the Beatles as a group sued EMI Records in a royalties dispute that took 20 years to settle. Apple also sued the Broadway show “Beatlemania” for unauthorized use of the Beatles’ name and logo, and it fought several court battles against Apple Computer for trademark infringement. The last was settled in 2006, in favor of the computer company.
Mr. Aspinall was often blamed for the slow pace at which Beatles archival projects were released as several projects have languished on Apple’s shelves for years, including a home-movie production of the Beatles’ 1965 concert at Shea Stadium, remastered versions of the film “Let It Be” and digital download versions of all the Beatles’ studio recordings.
What the complaints did not take into account is that Mr. Aspinall could release only what Apple’s principals — Mr. McCartney, Mr. Starr, Olivia Harrison and Yoko Ono (the widows of George Harrison and John Lennon) — unanimously agree should be released. And the interpersonal politics at Apple are such that unanimity is hard to come by.
Even so, Mr. Aspinall did oversee several important releases since 1993. These include “Live at the BBC,” a two-disc compilation of the group’s radio performances; “Yellow Submarine Songtrack,” a remixed version of the music from the “Yellow Submarine” animated film, which Apple also restored and reissued; “1,” a single-disc hits compilation; “Let It Be ... Naked,” a remixed and reconfigured version of “Let It Be,” without the string and choral overdubs that fans have long complained about; two installments of “The Capitol Albums,” which brought together mono and stereo versions of eight Beatles albums in their American (rather than British) configurations; and “Love,” a multi-media collaboration with Cirque du Soleil (and a matching recording).
His biggest achievement was “The Beatles Anthology.” The idea was to use performance film and interview clips to let the Beatles tell their own story. Originally meant to be a theatrical film, the project was begun in 1970 but shelved until the final EMI lawsuits were settled in 1989. By then, Mr. Aspinall had proposed that instead of making a film, the Beatles should contribute new interviews (with archival interviews with John Lennon, who was murdered in 1980) to a six-hour television series and a nearly 13-hour home video edition.
When the Beatles agreed, he assembled an extraordinary archive of television and concert film, photograph collections and other materials, for use both in “The Beatles Anthology” and other potential Apple projects. He was one of the few non-Beatles interviewed in “The Beatles Anthology” and credited as executive producer. He retired from Apple in 2007.
Mr. Aspinall’s history with the Beatles reached back to their earliest days as a band, when he hung flyers around Liverpool advertising their performances. In February 1961, with the group’s popularity in Liverpool soaring, Mr. Aspinall gave up his job as an apprentice accountant and began driving the group from job to job, often three performances a day.
On international tours, Mr. Aspinall left the business of equipment setup to Mr. Evans and became the Beatles’ principal aide. One of Mr. Aspinall’s later jobs was to round up the pictures of the celebrities and other influential crowd members for the cover of the 1967 album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” He also accompanied Lennon and Mr. McCartney to New York in May 1968 for a series of interviews announcing Apple.
On occasion, he was drafted as a performer. He was among the singers in the celebratory chorus of “Yellow Submarine,” and he played tambura (an Indian drone instrument) on “Within You Without You,” harmonica on “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” and percussion on “Magical Mystery Tour.”
Mr. Aspinall was born in Prestatyn, Wales, on Oct. 13, 1941, and grew up in Liverpool, where he attended the Liverpool Institute with Mr. McCartney and Mr. Harrison. He became friendly with the Beatles through Pete Best, their drummer from 1960 to 1962.
Mr. Aspinall, originally a boarder in Mr. Best’s house, had started a romantic relationship with Mona Best, Mr. Best’s mother. Their son, Roag Best, was born in 1962.
Mr. Aspinall accompanied Pete Best to the meeting with the Beatles manager Brian Epstein at which the drummer was fired. Mr. Aspinall decided to continue working for the group and also maintained his relationship with Mrs. Best for several years. He eventually had an opportunity to help Mr. Best make up for his missed fortune as a member of the Beatles: because several of the group’s previously unissued recordings with Mr. Best were used on “The Beatles Anthology,” Mr. Aspinall negotiated a generous royalty arrangement for the drummer.
In 1968, Mr. Aspinall married Suzy Ornstein, whose father, George “Bud” Ornstein, was head of European production for United Artists, the company for which the Beatles made the films “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Help!” and “Let It Be.” She survives him, as do their daughters Gayla, Dhara and Mandy; their son Julian, and Mr. Aspinall’s first son, Roag Best.
Mr. Aspinall made several films for the Beatles individually and collectively during his years as their principal aide. One accompanied the group’s 1969 single “Something” for which Mr. Aspinall filmed the Beatles and their wives walking placidly through an English garden (or, in Mr. McCartney’s case, the grounds of his farm in Scotland). What Mr. Aspinall’s idyllic film avoided showing was that the Beatles were at that point barely on speaking terms. In the film, no two Beatles are seen together.
During they group’s heyday, Mr. Aspinall wrote articles about their recording sessions for “The Beatles Monthly Book,” an officially sanctioned fan magazine. Virtually alone among Beatles insiders, he resisted the temptation to publish his memoirs, but joked that if he did write them, he would arrange to have them published only after his death. He is not known to have undertaken the project.