Lost Liverpool #20: Steve Proctor, The System and tales from the DJ booth

Steve Proctor

Steve Proctor

This month, Lost Liverpool takes a look back at The System, a club that was weekend highlight in the 80s, and speaks to the man behind the decks, Steve Proctor

The late 80s would seem to be one of Liverpool’s golden ages of clubbing, with a wealth of places to hang out, dance and to be seen.

There was MacMillans, for the cool crowd, playing a mix of Indie sounds with a jazz/soul slant. If Macs was a person it would have an strange beard and drink extravagant coffee. There was The State, a glorious, beautiful place where indie with an electro feel was in order. If The State was a person, it would be a glamorous girl with holes in her tights. And there was Planet X, playing to the punk/goth side of things. If the Planet was a person, it would drink way too much snakebite and regret it all in the morning.

And then there was The System. The project of one Steve Proctor, Liverpool promoter, DJ and face on the scene.  If The System were a person, it would drink a little too much and run around with a big happy smile on its young face.

The System was a Saturday night haunt and found home in the old Pyramid Club in Temple Street, home of The Teardrop Explodes doomed but well intentioned Club Zoo experiment. The place itself was something of a warren, with a main room and bar, a fairly compact dance floor and lots of little rooms and staircases dotted around the place that somehow took the time and trouble to connect. The effect of this was that, after a red witch or two, one’s drunken wonderings always happily seemed to bring you back to the dance floor. Or even more happily, another bar.

As with all the best clubs, a great part of the action took place in its nooks and crannies. The staircases became meeting grounds where conversations could be heard above the music and of course the toilets were always full of people gossiping, chatting and applying more make up. Mind you, I can’t imagine the ladies’ was any better. And of course, there was still room in The System for chicken dancing, wrecking and people generally hurling themselves around. The music policy was eclectic and it wasn’t uncommon for a James Brown song to be followed by the Rolling Stones or a new electro track and all were well received.

Getintothis spoke to Steve Proctor to get the background on one of Liverpool’s lost gems. Steve has been involved with club culture for many years, and a chance to hear an insider’s tale is an interesting one.

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The first thing one notices when interviewing him is that he likes to talk. He likes to talk a lot, and one topic seems to spark many more memories and the conversation can quite happily veer off into a side road for a while. It is easy to form the impression that you could just ask him how his day’s going, start recording and sit back for a while.

As an interviewer, this is a wonderful thing, as each question opens a treasure trove of rememberings, anecdotes and insights, and the listener is left sure that there are many more inside the man’s head. So how did The System come about?

Getintothis: As starting a club has always been something of a risky business, what were the first steps for The System?

“Well I’d been DJing at Cagney’s and I’d been at The Executive club, and then The Executive Club had a fire, so I moved to The Warehouse for a while. And then The Warehouse had a fire, so I available when I was approached by a well-known family in Liverpool, who owned The Pyramid club. I met one of the family, who was very bright, very charming and really into his music, and he had a club called Adam’s. But when we went to look at the club it had really shitty old decks in, so I said “I’ll work for you, but you have to get Technics decks in”. I told him they were about £250 each and he said “You’ve got to be frigging kidding me!” [Laughs]

“So I started working for him, but the club wasn’t going that well and they decided to close it down. Now at that time, the only thing The Pyramid Club was being used for was illegal drinks on a Sunday night. The Teardrops had done Club Zoo in there but they were struggling to do anything else with it, so I suggested that they revamp it. I said that the only way you can do this is to change the name, change the style, you’ve got to stop the Sunday nights and let’s relaunch it. I said that if you carry on the way you are you’re going to lose the license and lose the club anyway, so I suggested cease all connection to the past and do something else with it, and put on a live music venue on the Friday and an alternative club night on the Saturday.

“We were basically saying that we have an opportunity to maintain Liverpool’s position as a leading light in new music fields and to offer people with an alternative style somewhere to go. I also said ‘Let’s call it The System, because you can’t beat the system’ [laughs]. When it came to the design, I wanted the flyers and memberships to look like an old computer print card, with a series of holes in them and the corners cut off. It cost an extra fifty quid to get the corners cut off!  [laughs]. But I thought ‘If we’re going to do this, let’s do it properly, let’s make a statement that we are here, we are new, we are happening. 

“I wanted to establish from the very beginning that this wasn’t just another grungy live music venue with a disco on Saturday nights, it was about style. From day one we were making a declaration of intent, and that intent was that we wanted to attract people who are prepared to mix and match their musical style and their fashion and say that they would be safe, they would be respected and they would be appreciated”

Catherine Obi at The System

Catherine Obi at The System

Getintothis: Which brings me on to the music played at The System, which was very eclectic.  It was entirely possible to hear Cabaret Voltaire, The Cult, James Brown and The Rolling Stones, all one after the other.

SP:Yeah. Well the best thing that ever happened to me was learning to be a DJ where you played all night.  Where you turned up at quarter to nine and you played until half past two. And I’ve always been about a very diverse cross section of music. I remember saying this to Paul Oakenfold once when he was talking about setting up a Balearic club in 87/88.

I said that every alternative club up and down the country has been pretty much Balearic from day one. Because the bottom line is that if you have a club that holds three or four hundred people, you won’t get away with playing just one thing, so you have to appeal to a number of minorities, and these minorities overlap”

“And one of the great things about Liverpool is that it’s always been renowned for being broadly musically minded anyway. And Roger Eagle, with Eric’s, certainly created or fostered that attitude. Where you could hear dub reggae, or you could hear Blues, or punk and new wave, or where Stanley Clark might be playing. 

And that was the first club I was going to regularly. So I would say the Eric’s and Roger’s ideas had a lot of influence. I was always at my happiest mixing up the likes of The Woodentops, New Order, Paul Haig, Big Audio Dynamite, etc. And the same policy applied with the bands we booked. We had Pete Shelley, Vicious Pink Phenomena, The Farm, Half Man Half Biscuit, Doctor and The Medics, and Jayne County to name a few”

Flyer for The System

Flyer for The System

“And over the years there was a huge group of people who had been educated like this by myself and others. Andy Carroll was playing alternative music at the time, and there were other people doing the same.  And people were looking for a place to go. Brady’s had closed down, The Warehouse was gone, and I felt there was a crowd there. We could reference the past but there was also a load of new stuff that I wanted to play as well. And I was being sent all kinds of stuff so I used to think ‘I fucking love this record, and I want to share it with you’. And then I had to work out how to share it in a way that people would feel comfortable with, that’s the art of programming as a DJ. What I tried to offer was my own broad musical taste

Getintothis: Being a well-known DJ and playing only to the alternative scene, were you ever tempted to take a more mainstream gig for the money?

SP:No. Absolutely not. The nearest I got to that was after The System closed when I was offered a gig at The Kingsway in Southport. I managed it for a little while, but it drove me insane. I remember one night playing Walk This Way by Run DMC and Aerosmith, the dance floor was quite busy and I said over the microphone’ I’m going to play a record now that I think is great. I guarantee that you’re all going to walk off to it, but I also guarantee that in three weeks’ time you’re all going to be requesting it’. I played it and they all walked off [laughs]. And a few weeks later it was number one and I wouldn’t play it any more [laughs].

And Luther Vandross’ Never Give Up – I used to get asked for that every week. So one week I played it five times in succession, and the last time I played it I said’ That’s the last time I’m ever going to play this record, who wants it?’ and I gave it away. So I tolerated a mainstream club for a few weeks and then I moved to London. Economic necessity created a bit of a situation, but I soon got out of it

Getintothis: And when you did, what did you take with you from your time at The System?  Not physically, but in terms of lessons learned.

Well my first job in London was to create a dance label called Urban, where I specialized in releasing Rare Groove records. But weirdly enough I ended up A&R-ing King Kurt [80s Psychobilly group, famed for their chaotic gigs. King Kurt were savagely beaten and hospitalised by bouncers after a gig at The Venue]. And after the terrible events that happened to King Kurt in Liverpool, I promised them that if they came back they would be protected, to the point that we would guarantee their safety. But they were so mentally scarred by it that they just wouldn’t play”

“But it’s hard to answer the question of what I learned from The System, because I always tend to live in the moment.  I know I kept some stuff, and I keep finding this like flyers, posters and contracts, but I’d love to see a complete list of the bands who played at The System, if anyone can help.

I always used to keep a diary, but unfortunately some of the years are missing, including my diaries for 84, 85, 86, but I suspect they may have been left at the club. And I was working really hard at the time; I was at The State every Thursday, and I promoted my own gigs there too, I was managing bands and I was at The System every Friday and Saturday from 11.00

The last club I played at in Liverpool was The State. I was actually offered The State on Thursday, Friday and Saturday a year before it opened, but there was a delay due to the fact that the building was listed with English Heritage. Which is why I was available when I was approached about The System. If The State had opened when it was supposed to, The System would never have existed. Funny how life goes sometimes isn’t it?”

Getintothis: So why did The System finish?

Well the deal we had with the bands was that once our production costs were covered, they would take 70% of what was left. But a lot of bands didn’t break that barrier where our costs were met, so we lost money on a lot of local band gigs and some of the national ones. And we had a lot of overheads. So when the lease came up for renewal, and it was just as things were slowing down anyway, and I told them that I was looking to move to London. So the club ran its natural course pretty much, there wasn’t much more we could have done with it”

“We had incredible nights there and given people some incredible memories, but there wasn’t much more we could have done with the building – we were only ever going to be able to fit 400 people downstairs at any one time. So it was a combination of events really that made us close the club.

But I have such great memories of The System, and hearing people say that this was their Eric’s blows my mind. Because I have such massive admiration for Roger, and his attitude was such a major influence on me.  And that’s such a big thing because all I’ve ever wanted to do is to touch and connect with people through my music.  It’s an honour to know that a club I was directly involved in meant so much to people

In the final analysis, what more can we ask of a club? The System holds a special place in the hearts of those who graced its dancefloor, and only the best clubs can claim that much.