TWO ENCOUNTERS with Neil Aspinall

Uber-Beatles insider Neil Aspinall died in 2008, prompting me to write the piece below for Rock’s Back Pages.

Neil Aspinall worked for The Beatles from 1961 until shortly before he died, their longest serving, most loyal and certainly most tight-lipped retainer. While all and sundry who met The Beatles only briefly have felt the need to cash in by writing books, Neil, who was closer to them than anyone really, barring their wives, and certainly the most well-informed, long-term Beatles insider, resolutely refused ever to be interviewed. Whatever secrets he knew – and there must have been many – went with him to the grave.
     I had two encounters with Neil, both meetings to resolve issues between Omnibus Press and Apple. Certain Beatle-minded friends had told me that meeting Neil Aspinall was the holy grail of Beatledom. While it was relatively easy to meet The Beatles themselves if you were a journalist (or a fan determined to find out where they might be at any time – were this not the case John might be with us today), it was virtually impossible to scale the wall to meet Neil.
     So what was he like? Well, he was a dry old stick, that’s for sure, though there can be absolutely no question that he had The Beatles’ best interests at heart, even if this did mean his first response to every request was to say ‘no’. I guess that’s the way you become when you’ve seen everything and he’d seen absolutely everything, of course; the pre-Ringo Beatles, the wild, unfathomable madness of Beatlemania, the estimated 300,000 who turned out to line their route into Adelaide in 1964, the nastiness in Manila and the burning of Beatles records in the US after John’s ‘bigger than Jesus’ interview, the mind-boggling stupidity of Apple’s early days, the bitter fallings out, the divorces, the millions that were made and squandered and remade, the lawsuits, and the craziness that even now erupts because of the unimagined heights of celebrity that The Beatles lived through. If Neil was well enough he’d have been having a wry old chuckle about the court revelations in the Mucca v Macca saga. “Aah, that Paul – he’ll never learn…”  

       In 1989 I was summoned to Apple’s offices in Mayfair by the fabulous Derek Taylor to answer a charge that Omnibus was involved in packaging a rip-off Beatles’ ‘product’ (about which I knew absolutely nothing). Derek, whom I knew well, ushered me into Neil’s wood-panelled office. On his desk was a light blue box, about 300x250mm, a couple of inches deep, on the top of which was an embossed Beatles logo with the dropped ‘T’ and, also embossed, the famous image of the Fabs leaping from a stone wall, as used for the first time on the Twist And Shout EP, issued in the summer 1963 at the height of Beatlemania.
     After Derek introduced us, Neil handed me the box. “What’s all this about then?” he asked, in the manner of an old fashioned bobby. He was a bit grumpy, bald, with gold-rimmed specs, suited, slightly overweight and he chain-smoked. He didn’t look a bit like the chap I’d seen in the odd photograph from the Sixties, ushering his charges onto some stage somewhere or carrying George’s guitar, but I was definitely intimidated in his presence, knowing what I did about him. He wasn’t unfriendly but then again, unlike Derek, he wasn’t friendly either, just very matter of fact.
     “I haven’t a clue,” I said. “I’ve never seen this in my life before.”
     “Open it,” said Derek, who was hovering in the background.
     I did so. It contained a copy of Dezo Hoffman’s photo book With The Beatles, published by Omnibus Press, beneath which, inlaid into card, were CDs of Help!, Rubber Soul, and Revolver.
     “I have nothing to do with this,” I said. “Where did it come from?”
     “Japan,” said Neil, a man of few words. “How come your book’s in it?”
     I was well aware that Dezo’s book was a bone of contention between Omnibus Press and Apple. It was first published in 1982 when Dezo was alive through an arrangement with the photo agency Rex Features, which represented Dezo, but when he died in 1986 his widow sold the copyrights of all his Beatles photographs to Apple who guarded them jealously. Now, instead of paying a royalty on the book to Dezo via Rex, we paid it to Apple but, since it wasn’t ‘official’ Beatles product, if Apple had their way they would force us to withdraw it. Legally, however, because the contract was exchanged while Dezo was alive, Omnibus could continue to publish the book for as long as we kept it in print (which we have now done for 27 years; indeed, we have no intention of ever letting it go out of print).  
     “I don’t know how our book came to be in this box,” I replied, honestly. “We receive orders for our books all the time from wholesalers who sell them on to retailers or whoever else. We have world rights on this book and we sell it to anyone anywhere, and we have no way of knowing where they will end up.”
     Neil looked me in the eye. I didn’t know whether he believed me or not. “This was on sale in Japan for the equivalent of £200,” he said. “Some copies of it found their way to America where it was on sale for about £300. It’s a rip-off.”
     He was certainly right there. The Dezo book’s retail price was about ten quid in those days and the CDs about £12. Wholesale, this would have set the packager back a fiver for the book and maybe £7-8 each for the three discs, total outlay, say £27, plus a another quid or so for the box and inlay. £300 was a huge mark up.
     “This one,” said Neil, indicating the box in my lap, “was on sale in Camden Town market for £350. It was supposed to be a rare Beatles collectible...”
     Derek butted in. “And some bastard is ripping off Beatle fans and making it look like The Beatles are behind it.”
     “Well, it wasn’t us,” I replied, firmly. “And EMI must have supplied the CDs.”
     “Yes, I realise that,” said Neil. “And I think I believe you. And I also think they made 2,000 of these boxes.”
     “Look,” I said. “We are not in the business of selling CDs and creating things like this. But I can find out if we had an order for 2,000 books in the last year or so.  It’s a big order for an old book so it’ll stand out, and we might be able to find out where they went. I’d like to help.”
     “Thank you,” said Neil, standing up and shaking my hand. Then he left the room.
      I lingered and chatted about this and that with Derek, whom I’d known since 1970. He believed my story about the Dezo book, and as I was leaving, strangely, he went over to a cupboard and produced a vinyl copy of Please Please Me, The Beatles’ first LP. “No one leaves here without a present,” he said, as whimsical as ever. “And I think if you still have a copy of this, it’ll be very scratched by now, so here’s a new one.”
     He was right about that.

My second encounter with Neil Aspinall took place about a year after the first, at a time when Mary McCartney, Paul’s eldest daughter, was working for me as a photo researcher, not that this in any way influenced Neil’s attitude towards me or Omnibus.
     I had received a letter from Apple’s lawyers alleging that we had breached their copyright by publishing a Beatles book that, again, contained photographs by Dezo Hoffman. This particular book originated in America and I had bought UK rights, having previously had an assurance from the US publishers that they had cleared world rights on all the pictures. Evidently they were telling porkies and I was the victim.
     So I called Derek and requested another meeting to resolve the issue, and again I was summoned to meet Neil. Again, Derek was present but this time Neil was on firmer ground and was quick to score points. He had a copy of the offending book on his desk. It probably didn’t help that on the front cover The Beatles typeface had the dropped ‘T’.
     After a bit of small talk about Mary he came straight to the point. “This book is full of pictures that we own and I want you to take it off the market immediately,” he said. He opened the book. “These are pictures by Dezo Hoffman as I’m sure you know since they’re in the other book.”
     “I know and I’m sorry,” I said. “We bought the rights to this book from a publisher in America and they told me they’d cleared the rights.”
     “Well they hadn’t.”
     The book in question was entitled The Beatles Compleat and consisted of the editorial matter from a previously published, cased, two-volume songbook. It was a large format book, a sort of compendium containing chapters on many aspects of The Beatles, most of them written by eminent US music writers including Dave Marsh, Lester Bangs and Lenny Kaye. There were interviews with John, Paul, George Martin and Mersey Beat publisher Bill Harry, and also various lists, including one huge one of cover versions of Beatles songs. All in all it was a celebration of The Beatles, a flattering book about how terrific they were. It was all about their music, with absolutely nothing at all that might be construed as controversial or negative - no drugs, no sex, no money, no fallings out, no personal stuff at all.
     I decided that if I couldn’t defend the use of Dezo’s pictures I would defend the book.
     “Neil,” I said, rapidly assembling my argument, “This is a lovely book for fans. There’s nothing in it that anyone would object to.”
     “That doesn’t matter. We own those pictures.”
     “Derek,” I said, turning to the Beatles’ former PR who was sat alongside me, “surely you can see my point here. Last year Albert Goldman’s dreadful book on John suggested he might have been a murderer and that he was a junkie and a bad father to Julian and Sean. There was a book by Chet Flippo on Paul that seemed to imply he was the meanest man alive and had no real friends. Magazines report that Ringo is a drunk who beats up his wife, and most people think George is bonkers, that he talks to trees and believes in levitation. You can’t do anything about these negative books and stuff and they’re out there on the shelves of bookshops and newsagents yet here you are trying to stop my positive book which might redress the balance a bit. Surely this is an own goal.”
     There was a moment’s silence before Derek spoke. “Chris has got a point Neil,” he said. “He’s on our side really. He’s one of the good guys.”
     “Absolutely,” I said. “I love The Beatles. And this is a lovely Beatles book. We wouldn’t publish any of this crap about them. I wouldn’t do anything to hurt them or their reputation. This book just says how great they are... the best. It’s all about their music, nothing dodgy at all.”
     “OK,” said Neal. “We won’t stop the book, but we want a royalty on it.”
     “How much?” I asked.
     “I’ll talk to our lawyers. You’ll be hearing from them.”
     And that was that, really. Neil left the office. Derek didn’t give me another LP (I was rather hoping for a replacement With The Beatles this time) and I bid him farewell, not knowing in fact that it would be the last time I would ever see him. (I spoke to him on the phone about once a year after that, the last time a few weeks before he died in 1997. This was an odd conversation – he’d rang to get someone’s phone number from me, but he sounded very ill and when I remarked on this he told me about his cancer. I got the distinct impression that Derek had really called me to say goodbye, and that the phone number he requested was an excuse for the call. I still wonder whether any other casual friends of his received a similar call around the same time. He was a lovely man.)
     In the fullness of time I did hear from Apple’s lawyers who demanded a royalty that, together with the royalty I already paid to the US publisher, made it financially unviable for Omnibus to continue publishing the book, so Neil did effectively get it withdrawn after all.
     I still thought it was an own goal, though. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I had a couple of 'run ins' with Neil whose ability to climb up walls and walk across ceilings when angry was legendary. They concerned my Company's (LFI) acquisition, from Cooper's Son, Adam, of the out-takes of the photographs from the Sergeant Pepper Sleeve together with the photographic documentation of the actual shoot taken by a second photographer. Amazingly EMI had produced an original paid invoice from NEMS proving, unequivocally, that they, not Apple, ultimately owned the rights in these snaps - my Company and Adam shared a shed load of money from selling rights in these pictures until 'heavy' lawyers got involved and, unable to afford the fight, we were forced to back off - Neil won in the end - always did! JH