John Vickers on his life in Cyprus and his newly released album

John Vickers, GOLD Magazine’s Senior Executive Editor since its genesis in 2011, recently talked about his newly released CD, Back to Yesterday and looks back on his vibrant journey through Cyprus’ music and media landscape.

John Vickers is sitting across from me at his home in Larnaca, smiling as I run the tips of my fingers across the thousands of CDs that cover an entire wall of his study, from floor to ceiling. I first met him when I started working as a journalist and, at the time, I was unaware of his past until I mentioned his name to my mother who had been a big fan of his 17-year radio show Request Time way before I was born. She made it clear that I didn’t know how lucky I was.

But let’s rewind.

The 23-year-old John Vickers moved to Cyprus in 1972, guitar in hand, with a BA Degree in French and Italian in his pocket and no clear plans for the future. Two and a half months after his arrival, he was presenting a nightly radio programme. Knowing that music has been a never-ending element throughout his life, I find it hard to believe that the pop-crazy boy – who first sang in a church choir and later, aged 15, in a band, who spent all his pocket money on records, listened with religious devotion to the radio, and, years later, toured with the legendary French singer Charles Trenet and was offered a record deal by CBS France (which he turned down) – never imagined that he would be eventually be playing music as a job but he insists that it’s true.

Lady Luck smiled on him – and not for the last time – during a concert in the Lyssi village stadium in September 1972, when he was introduced to the MC, who was leaving CyBC radio, which was looking for a replacement. He still recalls the moment vividly: “The concert organiser said, ’Hey, you’re English and you know about music. Would you be interested in working on the radio?’ And I said, ‘Sure!’ It soon turned into the biggest radio show in Cyprus and I presented it every night for 17 years.”

By 1975, he had become reasonably fluent in spoken Greek but hadn’t learned to read or write the language. However, after his TV acting debut as the young English soldier held hostage in Brendan Behan’s celebrated play The Hostage, he was able to do both. Moreover, he was given the opportunity to rid himself of his 1970s hairstyle with grace, due to the director’s insistence that he visited the barber no fewer than three times to fit the role! “At the time,” he tells me, “Evis Gavrielides, the Head of the CyBC’s drama department, decided that I ticked all the boxes for the role: I had done some amateur acting, I could speak some Greek, I looked the part and I could sing – the Greek version of the play included some classic songs written by Mikis Theodorakis.” After a short pause, he goes on: “Despina Bembedeli, Stelios Kafkarides…the cast featured the very best actors in Cyprus. I was the only one who wasn’t a professional and it was a real challenge for me because suddenly, I had to read a script in Greek, learn it and, most importantly, speak with the correct intonation. That was the hardest part. But the play was very successful and I was then given the chance to do radio programmes in Greek. Eventually I ended up doing an entire series on the history of pop music.”

It wasn’t long before the name John Vickers was known across the island, not only from his radio shows and TV appearances but also via his music columns in the Cyprus Mail and later The Cyprus Weekly. “As I discovered when I came to Cyprus and I now firmly believe,” he tells me, “virtually every important thing that happens to us actually occurs by accident. Yes, we all have our ambitions and dreams and we can make plans and work towards things, but, you know, in the end, it all happens by chance! I speak from experience. I’ve always considered myself very lucky to have been able to turn my passion for music into something that I eventually became well known for. And in my 50-year career, I think that what I am most proud of is the positive effect that I had on so many people’s lives between 1972 and 1989 – without realising it at the time – just by making them happy every night when they were listening to the radio.”

Original, distinctive and creative, Vickers has always been up for a new challenge. A classic example is the Eurovision Song Contest, to which he remained indifferent until 1981, when Cyprus joined the European Broadcasting Union and was eligible to take part. “My attitude towards it changed completely,” he says with a smile. “Suddenly I realised that if I could get a song to Eurovision, millions of people would be listening to a song of mine!”

He eventually wrote the music for Cyprus’ 1990 entry Milas Poli, using a familiar CyBC jingle as his starting point. “I used to hear that little tune every night before the English programmes started and somebody told me that it was actually part of a traditional Cypriot song,” he recalls. Only John Vickers could have taken that jingle and turned it into a Stock Aitken Waterman-style song and he still remembers the first rehearsal in Zagreb: “For me, having started with this tune, then recording it in Germany and finally hearing it played by a symphony was something else, honestly!” he says and his face brightens in a way I’ve not seen before. “I thought to myself, ‘it can’t get any better than this’!” Fast forward and Vickers has done it all: he’s recorded half a dozen albums, written songs for films, represented Cyprus in the Eurovision Song Contest, worked as a journalist, presented a live TV current affairs programme, served as Chief Editor for various publications, translated over 30 books and even led an EU communications programme in Brussels.

In 2011, he was asked to run a new English-language Business and Finance magazine – another new challenge, not least because he had never been particularly interested in business or finance. But having been a successful editor of other publications, he decided to accept the offer and came up with a name for the new magazine. It was the right decision: “Thirteen years later, GOLD is still going strong so I must have done something right!” he says, adding, “and I’m very proud of it, too!” In January, he brought out a new CD called Back to Yesterday. Why now? “It’s another example of chance taking over,” he says and tells me how, in 2019, a 50-year old song that he had written at university suddenly came into his head for no apparent reason and, shortly afterwards, his best friend from his student days discovered a forgotten home-recorded tape of some old songs and the two of them discussed the idea of doing a proper recording but nothing was decided. “On many occasions, you think, ‘That’s not a bad idea, maybe I could do this or that’ and you don’t actually do anything,” he says. It was only when he found himself at his best friend’s funeral, with one of his old songs playing, that he realised he should have acted sooner and so he decided to go ahead with the project as a tribute to him.

“I was insistent that the recording would not contain any sounds that we couldn’t have got in 1971,” he explains. “I didn’t want to ‘bring them up to date’, because most of today’s popular music says nothing to me at all,” he adds, happy to admit that – musically – he remains stuck in the past – another reason for the title Back to Yesterday. Having listened to the CD, I can vouch for the fact that he has definitely encapsulated the 1970s zeitgeist. John Vickers is a man in love with life itself – that is something else I can most certainly testify to. He is a chameleon, yet always himself – unapologetic and beautiful. He tells me that now he is on a hunt to find a cassette player to listen to some more old songs of his that he discovered recently, but I am sure that he is only fooling himself if he thinks he is resting. His brilliantly devious artistry will doubtless be taking him down a new road. Having gone back to yesterday this year, I’m sure he’ll be coming back to the future very soon.

(Photo by Michael Kyprianou)

(This interview first appeared in the March edition of GOLD magazine. Click here to view it.)

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