Send a Message: An Interview with 'Star Fleet' Composer Paul Bliss
I was five years of age when Go Nagai’s X-Bomber (re-titled to Star Fleet in the UK) originally hit our TV screens in 1982. It wasn’t until a couple of years later though that I recall sitting down to it and being mesmerised by these wonderful puppets flying around in spaceships, with our heroes forming a giant robot to take on an army of scary insectoid baddies. And as with most catchy shows from the eighties I adored the music; it’s the kind of thing we never get to hear these days, which is why I’m always more than happy to revisit shows from my youth. Star Fleet was entirely composed by Paul Bliss, who managed to take the show’s various themes and build a winning pop/synth score around them, while the bulk of the series was translated and dubbed into English. Today, if ever Star Fleet is mentioned people seem to instantly recall the popular closing credits theme or Brian May cover over anything else. It’s not a great stretch, then, to say that it’s held up considerably well over the past 25 years and remains a true childhood favourite for many. With Fabulous Films set to release Star Fleet for the first time on DVD in the UK, I decided to get in touch with its composer and ask him about his memories working on the series. I hope the fans out there will enjoy as DVD Times welcomes Paul Bliss.
[Kevin Gilvear]: There’s surprisingly little info about you online. Is that because you’re a generally private person?
[Paul Bliss]: I’m not really surprised if there isn’t much info about me online – I think it would be accurate to say that my music career has been spent largely (with the exception of The Bliss Band’s two albums for CBS records in the late 70’s) as a supporting musician for the many bands and artists I’ve worked with as keyboard player (The Moody Blues, The Hollies, Sheena Easton, David Essex, Elaine Paige to name but a few), and as a songwriter (Celine Dion, Olivia Newton-John, Janet Jackson, Al Jarreau, Barbara Dickson). You really don’t get the recognition or exposure that ‘the artistes’ get. It is however a situation that I’m quite content with – I’ve never wanted to be in the spotlight myself, I just wanted to make good music.
[KG]: You seem to have had a very interesting music career. Would you care to talk a little about starting out in the business.
[PB]: I’m not sure that I have anything particularly relevant to say about that – I started out nearly 40 years ago, and the situation is totally different now. It seems that the internet plays a huge part in bands’ exposure and fan information which wasn’t even invented when I started out!
The only way to get a record deal when I started was to get heard by a record company and sign a recording contract to get the money to make a record and finance touring. Now the advent of the ‘bedroom studio’ makes it possible for anyone to make decent sounding recordings – all you need is the talent! I would like to think that this creates a much more open environment for musicians to get their work heard.
[KG]: Do you get much fan interest today from people who fondly recall Star Fleet?
[PB]: I haven’t had any direct contact from anyone regarding the series, but since the news of the DVD release I’ve become aware of the amazing amount of interest and affection that people have for it. I know that it was a highly rated (in terms of viewer numbers) show on its first screening some 25 years ago, and was a little surprised that (as far as I’m aware) it was never repeated…but I guess that the time is now right for this release.
[KG]: Star Fleet was your first commissioned television/movie work I believe. How did that originally come about and how long did you have to work on the project?
[PB]: Yes that’s right – it was my first attempt at scoring. It was something that I’d mentioned to my publisher that I would like to take a shot at – writing ‘pop music’ has its own set of rules and restrictions that, as a creative person, you’re tempted to step outside of – if only to see what your limitations are! I think that my publishers were approached with the Star Fleet project and my name was put forward.
It’s hard for me to remember a lot of the details, but I think that I did the majority of the underscore in about 8 weeks, and the start and end titles in about 2 weeks – that includes the writing and recording! I know that I was working about 16 hour days for most of the time, but as I had my own very modest home studio (a Fostex 8-track and Oberheim synth/sequencer) it made life a little easier. As there was about 15-20mins of music per 30 min episode, you can imagine how pressured I felt to get it all done!
[KG]: Was there anything daunting about the task of scoring a kids’ show such as this, which does have some fairly dark undercurrents, but remains lively and fun throughout?
[PB]: I never really felt under any duress as to what the music content should be – in fact, other than submitting 3 or 4 basic musical sketches to choose from for the opening titles I had free reign over what the underscore sounded like. I just put myself in the position of a viewer and tried to enhance what I was seeing on screen. The idea for an end title song (that Brian May covered – thank you, Brian!) was suggested by film editor Tony Lenny. He had worked on some of the Gerry Anderson TV shows and thought that a song (like ‘AquaMarina’ from Thunderbirds) was a good way to go for the Star Fleet project. That actually made life easier for me as the 3-minute pop song was the genre I’d been working in for many years, and was pretty comfortable with.
I’m very pleased that after all these years people on the internet sites say they remember running around the house or streets singing “Starfleet, Starfleet…” when the show finished on a Saturday morning.
[KG]: Were there any specific influences when scoring the series? It has a nice electro-pop feel about it, which of course became a staple part of the eighties pop scene, but this was fairly early days right?
[PB]: As I mentioned earlier, I wrote all the music on a synth/sequencer system by a company called Oberheim. I bought one of the first of these systems (along with my co-writer Steve Kipner) and the first thing we wrote on it was ‘Heart Attack’, a number 2 US hit for Olivia Newton-John. Another early-adopter of this system was John Farrar, Olivia’s producer. We simply recorded the data from our system on a cassette and imported it into his system, and that fundamentally became the record, along with guitar and sax overdubs. I believe it was one of the first hit records to be recorded in this way. The second thing I wrote was ‘Star Fleet’! The system itself in a way had an influence on the way I wrote the music. The ability to ‘loop’ and ‘copy’ sections of music (an everyday event in modern computer – based music) was a revelation and an enormous time-saver.
I did feel that I couldn’t afford to be too ‘clever’ with the music. This was after all a kids’ TV show, and the brief was to underscore the action, so elaborate time-signatures and ‘Steely Dan’ – type chord progressions (which I love) were not what was required. There were a few ‘motifs’ that I felt really needed to be there – like when the Alien ship appears – Da-Daaaaa - a major to minor movement that immediately says ‘this is bad’ or a sweetened (major seventh) version of the Star Fleet intro theme that says ‘all is well’. Obvious stuff, but what I thought was necessary.
[KG]: As for the song itself, it’s quite a remarkable piece - effortlessly catchy. Was there ever a longer version recorded, with extra lyrics perhaps, other than the one which closed every episode?
[PB]: Well, thank you for that – writing has always been a huge effort for me, a classic case of ‘never being good enough’, but this song really wrote itself. It was sung by a good friend of mine, Andy Brown, who played bass guitar in The Bliss Band, and my brother Martin played electric guitar. I did the background vocals myself and played all the other parts.
There is only this version (by me at least) – the requirement was for (I think) 90 seconds, so that was all that was needed.
[KG]: I trust you’re familiar with the Star Fleet Project, headed by Brian May. A lot of people recall his version of the theme song, which was inspired by his son and their admiration for the series. I saw an interview in which he praised your main theme. Was that something of a surprise for you?
[PB]: Yes it came as a complete, and very pleasant surprise. To have someone of Brian’s stature and talent endorse the series and my music in this way was hugely gratifying. He did send me a signed copy of his version with a personal message that I treasure.
[KG]: What did you gain from the overall experience? From a solo standpoint it must be quite satisfying to see it play out so successfully.
[PB]: I really hadn’t thought about Star Fleet for years! It was 25 years ago, and an awful lot has happened since then, both musically and personally. At the time I hoped it would lead to more TV and possibly movie work, but sadly that didn’t happen, although many other wonderful and varied musical experiences have transpired. I’m very happy that this DVD has finally seen the light of day though, as the only copies I have of the show are on the old Sony Betamax format that I don’t even have a player for any more.
Who knows where this might lead...!
[KG]: Is the desire there to do more film and television? You’ll have to pardon my ignorance if it’s not the case, but I don’t think you did much else after Star Fleet.
[PB]: No that’s true – I was a little surprised that Star Fleet didn’t prove to be a springboard to more work in that area, but I’ve managed to stay busy despite that. I was fortunate enough to write some pieces for award-winning writer Dario Marianelli (Atonement) a while back for a TV play he was scoring, but I’m not sure that has seen the light of day yet…It took Star Fleet 25 years so I won’t give up!
[KG]: Generally how are things these days? You’ve been playing with The Moody Blues since 1991 I believe and have worked on other solo projects. Touring, then, takes up a considerable amount of time, but do you have any other future plans?
[PB]: Working with The Moody Blues typically takes up around 4 – 5 months of my year. They tend to do three tours a year in the USA, and then there are quite often odd shows scattered throughout the year, like the opening of the Hard Rock Park in South Carolina we just did, where we (along with The Eagles) opened the attraction. I have a new venture BlissMediaWorks that makes movies for websites. I just stared it last year and that keeps me busy when I’m home.
[KG]: You've obviously moved on since Star Fleet, but might your recordings ever see the light of day on CD?
[PB]: Interesting and perhaps timely question – I am in the process of sorting out my publishing, and part of that includes transferring my whole catalogue into CD/MP3 format, as much of it is still on tape. When I get round to doing that I will see how much of the Star Fleet incidental music I have and perhaps there is an album there…
I’d like to extend my thanks to Paul Bliss for taking the time out of his busy schedule to make this happen. Like myself I’m sure there are many fans of Star Fleet who can’t wait for the upcoming DVD release and get swept up in the series all over again.
The images shown in this piece have been used with kind permission by The Star Fleet/X-Bomber Home Page: a great little site by the fans, for the fans, which covers just about every production detail of the series and features video and music clips of Paul’s work.
Original Opening Sequence:
Closing Credits (Star Fleet Main Theme):