The Edinburgh Companion to Twentieth-Century Literatures in English

By Brian McHale; Randall Stevenson | Go to book overview

Chapter 15
1967, Liverpool, London,
San Francisco, Vietnam: ‘We
Hope You Will Enjoy the Show’

John Hellmann

In the August 1967 issue of Atlantic magazine, John Barth argued in his ‘Literature of Exhaustion’ that forms and modes of art can be used up. Speaking years later, Barth pointed out, ‘I wrote the essay in 1967 … in the middle of a very apocalyptic time in the history of our republic … a time when people could be forgiven for wondering whether a lot of institutions were falling apart’ (Reilly 1981: 7). Barth cited the disturbances on university campuses and Marshall McLuhan’s claims in his The Medium is the Massage (1967) that the age of print was over.

The sense that history as well as the forms and functions of art and literature were on the verge of epoch-making transformation was strong in 1967. The most-discussed and most popular artwork of that year was a rock album, a form that only a few years earlier was not taken seriously even within the hit-singles world of pop music. The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released two months before the publication of Barth’s essay. The album contains references to different aspects of the time and points to new developments in art and literature. Sgt. Pepper is an expression of major currents intersecting among Liverpool, London, San Francisco and Vietnam that reached a pivotal moment in 1967. That intersection produced an emphasis on fantasy, theatre and performance to break through the Cold War ideological ‘consensus’ and imagine new artistic possibilities beyond the premises of modernism.

The conceit of the album is that the Beatles are inviting their audience to join them in a theatrical pretence. As Paul McCartney has explained,

We would be Sgt. Pepper’s band, and for the whole of the album we’d pretend to be someone
else. So, when John walked up to the microphone to sing, it wouldn’t be the new John Lennon
vocal, it would be whoever he was in this new group, his fantasy character. It liberated you –
you could do anything when you got to the mike or on your guitar, because it wasn’t you.
(Beatles Anthology 2000: 241)

The Beatles wanted to transcend the limits of their image as mass-entertainers of adolescents and of pop music as determined by audience expectations. After initial sounds of a pit orchestra tuning up and an audience stirring in their seats, in the guise of the Sgt. Pepper band the Beatles open the album with the title song, in which they parody oldtime music-hall performers who in turn pretend to their audience that ‘we’d like to take

-189-

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