06 April 2008

Fifth Beatle

Neil Aspinall, the fifth Beatle, died recently. We read that Paul McCartney was at his bedside. It seems appropriate and it might even be true, though with the ex-Beatles you never really know. The event prompted one write to ask just how many fifth Beatles there were, anyway. Good question. In a way there was no more a fifth Beatle than there is a fifth gospel, simply because the question is essentially meaningless. Where do you start, exactly?

When the Beatles first came onto the radar in America there were four of them--John, Paul, George, and Ringo, in that order. (At first it was more like Allen Sherman put it, "Ringo is the one with the drums; the others all play with him," but fairly quickly it was John, Paul, George and Ringo.) The little brother of a friend of mine, just learning to talk, quickly learned the litany in the form "John Paul George n Oingr." There was, however, actually a backstory on the Beatles that most of us didn't know, and some of us--me for one--didn't care about.

The original group--The Quarry Men--had been founded by John Lennon (the John of the formula), along with people like Pete Shotton, Colin Hanton, and Eric Griffiths. A buddy named Ivan Vaughn introduced Paul McCartney (the Paul of the list) to John, and Paul eventually brought in a young friend of his named George Harrison (George of the list). Now they weren't the Beatles yet, but at least a sort of argument can be made for the canonical order--John, Paul, and George.

Next, however, came Stu Sutcliffe, an art-school classmate of Lennon's, who couldn't play bass, but had the money to buy one. Sutcliffe is one of the many Fifth Beatles we've heard of, but in point of fact he was more like the fourth, given that there was no regular drummer for the group yet. He was one of the original Beatles, however, in that the group acquired its name during his tenure with the band. The fifth Beatle then would be--all together now--Pete Best.

Pete Best brought with him a fellow named Neil Aspinall--another Fifth Beatle--who drove the band about and made necessary arrangements. He was never a member of the band per se, but he was part of the ensemble, and a very necessary part at that. Along with Mal Evans--a fan who first saw the Beatles perform at the now-legendary Cavern Club--he took care of the Beatles needs long after the band stopped touring. Eventually he became the head of Apple Corps., the Beatles' own record label.

One odd note that crosses my mind--I don't know that I've ever heard Mal Evans called the Fifth Beatle, or the Sixth Beatle, or anything like it, though he was as much a part of the group as anybody else. However--

Next we have their manager, Brian Epstein, who discovered the band while trying to run down a copy of a record they had made backing Tony Sheridan (who although he appeared on their earliest record, has never been a Fifth Beatle as far as I know). Brian Epstein has been described as a Fifth Beatle, which I suppose makes a sort of sense, though he was never really one of the group. He managed them, but he didn't necessarily hang out with them. And then came George Martin, who in a musical sense might be said to be the Fifth Beatle. He produced them, made arrangements for them, played piano (in studio) for them, and in the end even oversaw their musical legacy.

So what about Ringo Starr (the Ringo of the litany)? He's the Fourth Beatle, and yet he only comes in after many of the Fifth Beatles so far enumerated. It's been fashionable to denigrate Ringo Starr as the least talented member of the team--maybe not even the most talented drummer in the Beatles--and yet it's worth remembering that in the early days Ringo was the one everybody remembered. Even the Queen thought he was the Original Beatle (rather than the last to join). I think it was Paul McCartney who observed that it wasn't till Ringo joined the band that things really started to happen for them.

Another candidate for the position of course was disk-jockey Murray the K, who proclaimed himself the Fifth Beatle, but is hard to take seriously. After all, he was far more peripheral in the story than even Alistair Taylor, who to the best of my knowledge no one has ever called the Fifth Beatle.

So what has become of these various Fifth Beatles? Stu Sutcliffe exited first, dying of brain hemorrhage (possibly from a kick to the head) before the Beatles had become truly famous. If he thought he'd be remembered I imagine it would be as an artist, not as a bass-player. Brian Epstein, their manager, died of an accidental drug overdose a few years later. Mal Evans was shot in Los Angeles by the police in 1976 and Murray the K died of cancer in 1982. Pete Best and George Martin are still with us, but now Neil Aspinall has passed on. He joins John Lennon (First Beatle?, murdered 1980) and George Harrison (Third Beatle?, died of cancer 2001) in that Great Dance Hall in the Sky.

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