Hardly anyone knows it, but we've just lost another Beatle. Not the most famous, influential, mysterious or essential, but perhaps the most indispensable one. His name is Neil Aspinall.
When it all comes down to it, the Beatles were a six-member team. You'll rarely hear their names mentioned and even more rarely see their faces, but Neil Aspinall and Mal Evans were the dynamic duo without which John, Paul, George and Ringo could not have survived. Manager Brian Epstein is the well-known marketing genius, producer George Martin is credited on the albums; Stu Sutcliffe and Pete Best are folk legends. But Neil and Mal were everywhere the group was at all times, doing everything that a 10-man crew does today. They drove the vans, ushered the boys through the screaming masses, carried their luggage, instruments and amps, set up and broke down their backline at every gig, studio session, TV appearance, radio appearance, film shoot, photo shoot or rehearsal. They forged Beatle autographs on thousands of photos, record sleeves and other souvenirs, brought food and drinks, procured equipment, instruments and supplies, changed out their guitar strings and drum heads, sometimes they even picked out the groupies. They both helped create the Sgt. Pepper album without credit. In addition, they also had to bear the brunt of the group's hostility during the most nerve-racking times, listen to them argue amongst themselves, and occasionally bear full responsibility for lost or damaged gear (Evans had to buy John a new Gibson acoustic guitar after his was stolen, and almost lost his job over one of George's Gretsch guitars that fell off the van and was destroyed).
Through it all, they remained fiercely loyal. Of all the people in the Beatles' entourage, there was no one on earth they trusted more than Neil and Mal. They were both in the inner circle at the beginning, and stayed there while others in the immediate perimeter came and went. Due to their miraculous ability to be four or five places at once, Neil and Mal managed to form a sort of force field around the group, shielding them, for the most part, from the chaotic hurricane surrounding the relatively peaceful eye in which they moved.
When Brian Epstein died and the Beatles formed Apple Corps to manage their affairs, Neil reluctantly took the job as managing director, at least until they could get someone else to handle it. He would remain at the helm of Apple for almost 40 years, carefully guarding the Beatles' image, gaining control of merchandising, and waging war through the courts to protect the band's business interests. Shortly after the breakup, Neil compiled countless hours of film footage for a feature-length documentary tentatively titled The Long and Winding Road. By 1995, it became the 10-hour long Beatles Anthology, which landed the group back on top of the charts a quarter-century after their demise. It was on the Anthology that many would meet Neil Aspinall for the first time. Up to then, he had never spoken publicly about the band and never appeared on camera, except in one-to-two second cameos where you'd miss him if you blinked. Too bad; he was a good-looking guy.
Unfortunately for us, our acquaintance with Neil comes too late and too short. Being a key player in the Beatles' machinery made him a man with not only great stories, but also answers to questions that die-hard fans have all been asking over the years. Many of those answers died with Mal Evans, shot by Los Angeles police in 1976. We all know what happened next. Now, with two thirds of the original unit gone, Paul and Ringo must be feeling lonelier than ever. And so are many of us on the outside. Besides the four men themselves, there were some extraordinary people who contributed so much to the story of the Beatles, and of the ones who have passed nearly all have left before their time. Each time another one disappears, the magic of that period grows ever more distant. Neil's passing is only the latest pill, but one of the most bitter of them all.