The bouzouki had hung on the wall of The Four Lanterns restaurant for years. It was part of the furniture, a decorative aside, not meant to be played and designed to put a bit of Greek culture into the diner’s mind as they settled down at a table in the famous eaterie.
But for John Themis, the battered instrument was an unlikely gateway to a world of No1 hits and stadium tours.
The Cyprus-born musician had recently completed national service in the Cypriot army. It was 1974, and the awful war on the island had coincided with his conscription. After being demobbed, he wanted to forge a new life in London.
Now, after decades at the pinnacle of the music world, he is behind a ground-breaking art gallery in the celebrated Grade II-listed Bloomsbury block, the Brunswick Centre.
In July, the gallery presents a new show called Louder + Prouder. It is a celebration of pieces inspired by those in the gay community, or created by artists who identify as LGBTQ+, or have themes that speak about sexual orientation in the past, present and future.
John said: “I wanted a celebration of the LGBTQ community, by artists in the area, and to give them a space and voice. It is a celebration of the artistic, visual aspect of an influential culture. We wanted to mark the impact of the gay community on the visual art world through the years.”
Running a Bloomsbury gallery is a change of direction for a man whose pop sensibility has scored No1s for artists such as the one-time Spice Girl Emma Bunton.
“I have been in the music business all my life,” says the gallery owner.
This ranged from writing to production, session work playing numerous instruments, directing, getting bands together “and making they play the right notes,” he adds.
After moving to London aged 20, the world did not seem so full of possibilities.
“I had no money and I knew nobody,” he says. “I went to find work in restaurants playing my guitar. Finally, I landed a job at the Four Lanterns in Cleveland Street.
“My friend played the guitar there and asked me if I played the bouzouki. I never had. There was one hanging on the wall and it was a terrible. He said get some strings, tune it up, you’ll be OK. So I did.”
John first picked up a guitar via an older brother who was a keen musician.
“He played in clubs and he had a knowledge of instruments, he was into his guitars,” he says.
“He had a Gibson guitar and it was a real beauty. It was worth about £350 – and remember then, you could buy a house for £2,000. He used to say to me: do not ever touch my guitar when I am not here. It was a golden rule.”
One day, nine-year-old John’s curiosity got the better of him. His brother was out, and he couldn’t resist looking at the Gibson. “I was entranced – I had to pick it up,” he recalls.
His brother appeared.
“He said – if you are going to hold my guitar, you are going to hold it properly,” he adds.
He showed his sibling a couple of chords, and John was sold.
“He taught me how to play a tune called Down In The Valley, which has two chords, and about 1,000 verses. I played it relentlessly.”
After his turn at the Four Lanterns, his career took off when a music agent offered session work.
He became a go-to multi-instrumentalist, playing for world famous musicians. He wrote for and performed with Cat Stevens, Dolly Parton, Kylie Minogue, Elton John, Rod Stewart, Grace Jones, The Spice Girls Dionne Warwick, George Michael, Bryan Ferry and penned hits for others.
“I had an array of weapons – guitars, amps, percussion, the lot. I’d go into the studio, say what do you want and then get to work.”
He wrote for Trevor Horne, and became a key figure in the 80s band, Culture Club.
“I was asked if I could go to the Olympic Studios to help an artist called Boy George,” he remembers.
“I vaguely knew him – I thought that’s the guy who dresses up? He had tried a few guitarists and none of them had what he was looking for. He played a song for me, I sat down, gutted it out and created a road map for it. I tried a take and he said – that’s it, that’s what I mean. He then said: are you free next week? Do you want to come and play a gig in Gorky Park, Russia?”
His music career ended three years ago after John had an epiphany.
“My job meant lots of touring and lots of concerts,” he recalls.
“I was finishing a six-month tour and I just missed being at home. I remember sitting at the back of a private jet thinking I do not want to do this anymore. I’m done.”
The Brunswick Centre is owned by the Lazari family, and one of the brothers, Len, is a friend of John’s.
“Len would call me up and say – where are you today, then John? I’d say – I’m at the Hollywood Bowl, Len,” he says.
“Len had always said: work with me if you want a job based in London.”
John took him up on the offer and has opened the gallery in what was once a photography warehouse.
“It had never been refurbished,” he said.
“No one had used the space since the 1970s. I walked in and thought – this could be an amazing space to exhibit,” he adds.
For John, curating a collection is a way of supporting artists he enjoys, shaping what the collections will look like, looking for surprises in contemporary art, and ensuring the work they show is technically flawless as well as thought provoking.
“It’s about being surrounded by beautiful things,” adds John. “It certainly beats being on the road.”
• Louder + Prouder: A Celebration of LGBTQ Art is at the Brunswick Art Gallery, The Brunswick Centre, WC1N 1AE, until 17 August. Open Tuesday to Friday 11am-5pm; Saturday 11am-4pm, www.brunswickartgallery.co.uk
Source: Islington Tribune