The title “The Fifth Beatle” has been conferred on various individuals for over 40 years. Brian Epstein and George Martin had solid claims to it, Pete Best and Stuart Sutcliffe, one time band members, also had claims. But Neil Aspinall, whose name few music fans know and even fewer would have recognised in the street, had one of the strongest claims of all.
In their heyday in the sixties The Beatles had what their biographer Hunter Davies called “paid mates”. There were two of them, Neil Aspinall and Mal Evans, and they acted variously as roadies, assistants, drivers, gofers and, yes, paid mates. Aspinall went back the furthest. He was at school at the Liverpool Institute with Paul McCartney and George Harrison. And he survived the longest, Evans dying in strange circumstances in a police shoot out in America in 1976.
Aspinall went pretty much everywhere with The Beatles, always just out of camera shot when pictures were taken, always just away from the platform at the Fab Four press conferences. In 1961 he even became romantically involved with the mother of the then Beatles drummer Pete Best and fathered a child with her, though she was 20 years his senior.
After the band broke up he went back to his first love of accountancy and was chosen by The Beatles to run their company, Apple. There were two reasons for this. First, he proved to be a very good accountant. Perhaps as importantly in the bitter aftermath of The Beatles’ break-up, he was the only person that all four trusted.
As chief executive of Apple, his financial skills must have surprised even The Beatles. He helped to multiply their fortunes many times over, with initiatives such as the successful court case with Apple computers over use of the name. His cautious protectiveness of the group’s interests did not always help the fans – the Beatles were late entrants on to the CD market, for example. But, equally, he never allowed the brand to be compromised through such things as use of the music for adverts.
I met Aspinall in the 1990s at the time of the release of the Anthology albums of Beatles’ alternative takes and unreleased tracks. I asked him why he had never until that point had any visible presence or spoken to the media. He replied that The Beatles had so much to say, what was the point of someone like him stepping into the limelight?
Maybe. But, for all the innumerable biographies of the biggest group in popular music history, this was the one person who knew them since they were all teenagers and also knew the secrets of their business empire. His would have been a story worth hearing.