Last seen playing on the roof of Apple, their business headquarters, the Beatles disappeared in 1969 but Apple did not. Andrew Davidson anatomises an empire and a reunion 'We just pretended that John had gone on holiday, or out for tea, and had left us the tape to play with. That was the only way we could deal with it and get over the hurdle, because it was really very emotional' Ringo Starr

legant white townhouses encircle central gardens; towering plane trees shade the road. On the pavement, puffing, pin-striped businessmen roll off to lunch, dowagers walk their Pekineses, and bottle blondes with Alice bands clack between designer stores. Ovington Square looks like any other sleepy, Knightsbridge backwater.

At number 27, there is a tiny label on the video entry phone. It reads: apple. Inside is a suite of offices on three floors studded with gold and silver discs. Here, the four-strong team entrusted with running one of the music world's largest fortunes goes quietly about its business.

It's a very long way from the frenzy which attended Apple's original offices in Savile Row, Piccadilly, when souvenir-hungry kids would clamber through the windows and the girl fans, known as "Apple Scruffs", would loiter by the door. What endures is the public appeal of the men whose business this is. Money broke up the Beatles, and money brings them back together.

Up on the first floor, the man behind this winter's Beatles "reunion" maintains a long and stern silence. Neil Aspinall, once a schoolfriend of George Harrison's, chucked in his accountancy training to drive the Beatles to their first gigs in the early Sixties. Now, as befits someone with a Knightsbridge parking permit, he drives a Rolls Royce, has a large house in Twickenham, and runs the financial empire of the Beatles. A gaunt, slim Liverpudlian, Aspinall, now 54, is renowned in music circles for two things: the trademark cap he wears to cover his baldness, and his lifelong aversion to publicity. Aspinall is not even a director of the company he has run so efficiently for 20-odd years. None the less, he is the reason why the wheel's still in spin. His patient management of the Beatles' legacy, his forbearance in the teeth of the famously fractious relationships, and his untangling of the mess the Beatles made of their fortunes, has led some to dub him, inevitably, "the fifth Beatle".

His silence makes it very difficult to unpick the web of financial interests that still ties the group together. Yet, even 26 years after they hit the last note of "Let It Be" on Apple's roof, the Beatles generate enormous sums from records and music publishing. In 1991, Apple's turnover was pounds 5 million; in 1992, pounds 21 million; in 1993, pounds 6 million; in 1994, pounds 10 million - huge amounts for a defunct group.

Opinions are divided on how astute Aspinall has been. He spends as much time keeping material off the market as putting it on: a modus operandi described, in music business jargon, as a "very careful exploitation of catalogue". People still buy records by the Beatles in such surprising volume not just because they were late on compact disc, but also because you won't find tracks by the Beatles on compilations. However, some advisers to the individual Beatles think this is not "careful exploitation", more like incompetence.

Until now, no one has ever been allowed near Apple's hoard of live and "unreleased" music, which includes the Royal Variety and Ed Sullivan shows, outtakes from Abbey Road's famous Studio 2, and some very early treasures, notably a couple of numbers - Buddy Holly's "That'll Be The Day" and an embryonic McCartney song, "In Spite of all the Danger" - cut by John Lennon's first band, The Quarry Men, in 1958.

Now the Beatles are cashing in, exploiting, ostensibly, the pent-up demand of their fans for new products. Buoyed by the dramatic success last year of the 56-track double CD, Live at the BBC, which sold 5.5 million copies at about pounds 15, Aspinall is preparing his biggest launch yet. Starting on 26 November, as hardly anyone can be unaware, there will be a six-hour documentary series on ITV called Beatles Anthology. Six days earlier, Apple will release the first of several CDs, featuring two songs, "Real Love" and "Free as a Bird", roughly recorded by John Lennon just before his murder, and with new instrumentation by the remaining three Beatles. Next year, there will be an official Anthology book, a radio series, and the release of the Anthology videos, with value-added material.

The potential income is astonishing. The American television station ABC has supposedly paid $20 million for the documentary, ITV a further pounds 5 million, and as many as 40 other countries could screen it. Forbes magazine has estimated that the project - TV, CDs, videos, books - will earn the Beatles more than $100 million.

But why is it all happening now? Serendipity. Aspinall has been working to this end since the Seventies. The band members supposedly vetoed an earlier, shorter version of the Anthology film in the Eighties. But fresh impetus has come from George Harrison, whose financial difficulties arising from Handmade Films, the company he once ran, have overcome the strongest reluctance to disinter their past. Before, Aspinall always came up against the problem that, while he runs the company, actual control rests with its four shareholders - Paul, George and Ringo, and Yoko Ono (who controls Lennon's estate) - and they have found it hard to agree on anything, McCartney and Yoko in particular.

Apple board meetings are convened in the London offices of Frere Cholmeley Bischoff, Apple's solicitors. Invariably chaired by one of the partners of Frere Cholmeley Bischoff, the meetings are Byzantine and often go on for days. The Beatles themselves rarely turn up; they send their international advisers. In consequence, the whole business of the Beatles, as the millions rolling through Apple are painstakingly divided, has become a lawyer's and an accountant's dream. Some shareholders want dividends (pounds 18 million paid over the past ten years), and some want "promotional fees" (Yoko and Harrison received pounds 1.4 million each last year). McCartney gets money paid into his British holding company, MPL; Starr has part of his Apple stake transferred to companies whose ownership disappears into the Virgin Islands.

Aspinall gets in on the game, too, by receiving payment through Standby Films, which is owned by him and his American wife, Susan, and which is cited in accounts as the company secretary of Apple. Standby was paid pounds 408,000 last year, but the figure doesn't appear in Apple's accounts: it is buried in a mass of largely unexplained administrative costs, some pounds 9 million last year.

It may be unorthodox, but it works. In his dealings with the Beatles, Aspinall always makes sure that everything is endlessly checked with each shareholder. "He just goes round and round between the four parties," says one insider, "so that there are no ambushes and no one can say 'what the hell is this?'" He is, says another, the ultimate road manager, totally impartial and ego-less, the only man every group member trusts. He keeps his head down - no interviews, no photos - because that is the only way he can keep out of the crossfire.

And no one should doubt that such caution is necessary. It can take only the slightest slip to set off the old enmities: Harrison versus McCartney, all three of them against Yoko. It still rankles that McCartney re-negotiated with EMI in the Seventies for a bigger slice of old royalties, and all of them, and especially Harrison, are acutely conscious of how much money they lost during their seven years of recording together: on potential merchandising deals alone, estimates are as high as $200 million. It is hardly surprising that nerves are frayed.

But the Anthology project is about more than money. A colleague of the Beatles from the Sixties says that seeing them together again, larking around at Apple, is "like having your kids home for Christmas". He pitches it very high when he contends that, for a generation whose soaring hopes dwindled and fell with the end of the Sixties, the reunion might provide spiritual balm. Too high, perhaps, but at least the remaining Beatles can now have a say in the re-writing of their history

When John Lennon embarked on his ill-fated comeback in 1980, he claimed that he "hadn't touched a guitar for five years". But, actually, he had been toying with 30 song fragments, many of which became his final albums, Double Fantasy and Milk and Honey.

"Free as a Bird" was never completed, and the tape reveals little more than the bones of a lyric, with the same couple of lines repeated over a haunting melody. In February 1994, McCartney, Harrison and Starr began the attempt to transform this Lennon sketch into a multi-layered Beatles masterpiece. They gathered at McCartney's East Sussex studio, The Mill, together with Jeff Lynne, former leader of the Electric Light Orchestra. He was there as arbiter of disputes. Lynne and Harrison had been fellow members of the Travelling Wilburys, an ad hoc supergroup also comprising Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan and Tom Petty. Insiders reckoned that Harrison had vetoed the direct involvement of George Martin, the producer of almost every original Beatles record, out of suspicion that Martin would automatically side with McCartney, several of whose solo albums he had also produced.

Lynne was challenged to correct the technical deficiencies of Lennon's tape before the Beatles dubbed new instrumentals and vocals. On the final record, McCartney and Harrison duplicate the lush harmonies of Abbey Road, and then a stentorian drum break by Starr signals a Harrison guitar solo to bring the track to a close. But, as a playful nod to the Sixties, they inserted into an early mix a few words of Lennon talking - backwards, of course, like the so-called clue that had "authenticated" McCartney's death during the Beatles media madness that swept America in 1969.

Careful not to strain their delicate camaraderie, the Beatles spaced out their sessions. They broke off in March 1994, then regrouped for several weeks in June and July. "Free as a Bird" was finished this February. Then they turned their attentions to another Lennon tape, "Real Love", apparently unaware that the song had already been released on Lennon's Imagine soundtrack. Work on a third recording remains unfinished.

Meanwhile, the process of assembling old footage for the Anthology series had been going on since January 1992. Strict care was taken to ensure that the four Beatles each received balanced screen time, and early episodes were re-edited time and again to accommodate each Beatle, plus Yoko. The climax came in June 1994. The trio arrived at Harrison's sprawling mansion on the Thames to rattle through some rock'n'roll standards for the camera. Carefully avoiding any songs associated with individual Beatles, Harrison and McCartney picked at acoustic guitars, while Starr dabbed at a drumkit with a pair of brushes. It might have been star-struck teenagers setting out to emulate Lonnie Donegan or Elvis.

It was not until a full year later that they yielded to pressure for a joint interview at Abbey Road studios. "The atmosphere was electric," noted one of the crew, "but it was difficult to tell whether they were really pleased to be with each other, or just pretending for the cameras." McCartney was realistic. "We're friends," he said later, "but we still fight."

Would the reunion have happened if Lennon were still alive? McCartney says he and John were reconciled before Lennon's murder, but Lennon was still aggrieved by Harrison's biography, I Me Mine, which barely acknowledged him. "What if Paul and I got together?" Lennon asked in one of his final interviews. "It would be boring. Whether George or Ringo joined in would be irrelevant."

From beyond the grave, Lennon, typically, has punctured all the hype. In 1978, he had begun work on an autobiographical musical entitled The Ballad of John and Yoko. It was never finished, but in his notes he sneers at "those famous avant-garde revolutionary thinkers, Paul, George and It's Only Ringo". And one of the songs he had earmarked was "Free as a Bird" - innocently chosen by the three objects of his wit.

By Peter Dogget, editor of 'Record Collector', the current issue of which contains a full history of the Beatles' reunion

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