When I was in Grade 10, my high school got a recording studio. That studio would be my sanctuary for the remainder of my time there, and it would be demolished a year after I left. Our music teacher, Mr. Love, was tasked with constructing a class that taught the basics of recording hardware and software, and I enjoyed the class so much that I wound up taking it twice. And while the skills and techniques I developed in that class have been invaluable to me as a musician, they weren’t the most important thing I took away from that class. I can still remember the day Mr. Love gathered us all in the music room for a brief history lesson. It was a day that changed my life forever. It was the day I first heard Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
As I recall, the majority of the lesson consisted of his reading off of the album’s Wikipedia page. Specifically, he went through all of the crazy and innovative recording techniques used to make that album, like cutting up a bunch of tape loops and randomly splicing them together on Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite. He played us Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds. I was captivated, and so I went and bought a copy of the album.
Listening to Sgt. Pepper from start to finish for the first time was, without a doubt, one the most defining moments of my life. A lot of people scoff at the idea that a piece of art can have that profound an effect on somebody. It’s just music, after all. I’d argue that you can make that sort of reductionist point about any part of the human experience. Everything we experience as conscious beings is nothing more than a sequence of neurons firing. We’re the ones who fool ourselves into thinking any of this stuff has meaning. And nothing encapsulates the idea of imbuing meaning into this meaningless universe more than art.
Art has the potential to make you feel powerful emotions. The snarky optimism of Getting Better assures us that no matter how difficult life may seem, it can always, well, get better (it can’t get no worse!). The loneliness of the protagonist in She’s Leaving Home makes us weep on the inside, but the string arrangement shows us that there’s beauty in misery. And the ominous orchestral swell that concludes the album fills us with awe and leaves us deeply unsettled until the finality of that last chord reminds us that even in this vast and terrifying universe, we can always find a place to call home.
Art has the power to expand your mind. Sgt. Pepper captures the Beatles at their creative and experimental peak. The album’s sonic experiments were a rejection of the idea that there are limitations to creative expression. The album overcomes the restraints of genre (the songs range from music hall to baroque pop to psychedelia), culture and ideology (Within You Without You draws influence from Eastern culture both musically and philosophically), and even technology (thanks to the ingenuity of the mixing, the album’s creative vision didn’t have to yield to the limitations of four-track recording). Sgt. Pepper encourages us to think outside of the box, to break through all barriers and achieve the impossible.
But, most importantly of all, art has the power to inspire. Sgt. Pepper has inspired me as a musician, encouraging me to draw influences from a wide variety of musical genres and experiment with unorthodox recording, song-writing, and production techniques. Sgt. Pepper has inspired me as a musicophile, serving as a gateway drug to the in-depth musical exploration that transformed me into the obsessive music geek that I am today. But beyond all that, Sgt. Pepper has informed everything that I do in my life creatively, be that as a musician, as an author, or even just as a person. The idea that someone can create a work of art that resonates with somebody so deeply so many years later serves as the backbone for my personal philosophy. John Lennon died over 20 years before I was born, and yet, through his music, I have connected with him on a much deeper level than I have with most people. Our society rarely encourages us to completely open up to anyone but our closest friends and family. Art rejects that notion; it encourages an intimacy that’s universal and all-encompassing. It connects us not only across the globe, but across time.
Embracing art can change your life. I wasn’t the happiest person in my undergrad days (very few of us were). But no matter how bad I felt, I always noticed that listening to The Beatles put me in a good mood. So, one day, I decided to listen to everything they’d ever recorded—to go through all of their music chronologically. And, sure enough, everything started getting better. When I ran out of Beatles albums to listen to, I needed more. I started exploring other bands from the 60s and 70s. Then I started revisiting modern music. I ventured deeper and deeper down the musical rabbit hole, and somewhere along the way, I realized what I wanted to do with my life.
I made it my goal in life to leave behind something that can affect somebody as deeply as this music has affected me, long after I’m gone. That Sgt. Pepper is still changing lives 50 years after it was recorded is a testament to how powerful music—and art as a whole—really is.
Today, I can’t say with certainty that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is still my favourite album, or even my favourite Beatles album (I prefer The White Album now). But no album has been more influential on my development as a person. When Mr. Love passed away a couple years ago, one of the first things I did upon hearing the news was listen to Sgt. Pepper. Because even though he’s gone, even though John Lennon, George Harrison, and now George Martin are gone, that connection that comes from the music we shared and continue to share is stronger than ever.
So happy 50th anniversary to the greatest album ever recorded. Happy 50th anniversary to the album that changed not only my life, but also the lives of so many others. Here’s to another 50 years of Billy Shears, Rita the meter maid, and, of course, Henry the horse.