Book Review: Beatles With an A

‘Tis the season for two things, at least: the annual holidays, and new Beatles-related products of note. Just this week, for example, the long-awaited (and delayed) release of the 2CD set On Air, a collection of BBC radio broadcasts (music and banter) from the band’s early days. As for me, since I have the (cough) unofficial 13CD set that includes all the music on this set (plus 1993’s Beatles at the BBC plus hours upon hours more), I’ll wait for the 3LP vinyl release later this month. Still, a must-have in some form.

There’s also the new book by acclaimed Beatles scholar Mark Lewisohn, Tune In, the first in a planned volume of titles under the All These Years banner. Lewisohn endeavors to combine all known sources and his own research to construct a definitive history of the foursome. A hardcover at 944 pages, it’s bound (heh) to be exhaustive. And at less than US$25, it’s a steal. I’m sure I’ll pick it up soon.

But in the meantime, I’d like to shine a light on a lesser (if at all ) known book about The Beatles. It’s a hardcover sort-of graphic novel called Beatles With an A: Birth of a Band, by Mauri Kunnas. What makes this work by a Finnish author/illustrator different from damn near every other book on the band is its singular approach: it’s a hardcover comic book.

Perhaps not for very small kids, though. The cover depicts John, Paul, George and Ringo crossing the street Abbey Road style, but the street’s in Hamburg’s seedy Reeperbahn red-light distruct. Flip the book over and you’ll see two more characters in the procession: Pete Best and Stuart Sutcliffe. In episodic narrated-fairytale style, Kunnas chronicles the band from Ringo’s birth (against a backdrop of Luftwaffe shellacking Liverpool whilst a liverbird atop the Liverpool Town Hall shouts, “Missed me, shitface!”) through the release of their hit, “Please Please Me” / “Ask Me Why.” In the penultimate frame, George Martin speaks via intercom from the control room into the studio: “Congratulations, fellas! You have just recorded your first chart-topper!” And indeed they had.

Focusing on the band’s pre-fame days in a sly and irreverent style (and not shying away from Brian Epstein‘s fixation upon of John), Kunnas makes liberal use of corny in-jokes and hokey wordplay, but it’s all done in good fun. And though he boils the story down to fit into seventy-odd pages, it’s clear he has a deep and nuanced understanding of The Beatles, their story, and their cultural importance. But he doesn’t let that knowledge get in the way of having fun.

Occasionally the fun is a tad mean-spirited: “Brian had one awkward habit. Often of an evening he would have a terrible urge to go to the toilet. However, only the public conveniences in Liverpool would do.” To be fair, that characterization isn’t too wide of the mark, and Kunnas isn’t aiming for delicacy, but there are parts of the book that might make some readers shift uncomfortably in their seat: “Did he have to put it like that?” But Kunnas’ keen eye for details (he credits Lewisohn for “some very useful observations”) makes Beatles With an A: Birth of a Band a worthwhile read. And a fine gift, too, especially for the Beatles fan in your life who has everything. Because he or she probably doesn’t have this, yet.

Available for US$26.20 + shipping at

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