NO FUN #5: Contemporary Christian Music of the 1980s

NO FUN is a monthly show I curate for Frozen Section Radio. It plays “live” each first Monday at 7pm Eastern Time, and then lives on Mixcloud.

The early ’80s was an important time in my life, and also a time when my musical taste (and the rest of my life) took a strange detour. In 1982, at the age of 16, I was “born again” and entered the very unique subculture of evangelical Christianity. The world in general was experiencing a period of conservative politics, with Reagan and Thatcher in power (and Brian Mulroney up here in Canada being elected in 1984). The fear of nuclear war was a big part of my teenage years, and perhaps a part of my conversion was a desire for security, for things to make sense. Despite that, I was always a black sheep and remained a big fan of punk and “new wave” music.

The ’80s were also a time of great change in the evangelical culture. Something called “Contemporary Christian Music” (or CCM) was emerging to compete with traditional gospel music, and evangelical teens who had always been discouraged from listening to “secular” music were finding new music that was hewing a bit closer to the general trends and styles of the larger culture.

Personally, I was still listening to my Sex Pistols and Talking Heads records, but I was curious about this new stuff, despite much of it feeling like a pale imitation. It was very important to evangelicals that the “message” of the music was positive. I remember hearing a lot of Christian music for the first time at weekly roller skating socials at the Scarborough Roller Palace. By the early ’80s, roller skating had pretty much passed out of the general culture, and I found it funny to be returning to a pastime that my parents had enjoyed a full decade earlier.

The music of a Christian roller skating social in 1982 was a mix of older Gospel acts trying to stay current (The Imperials, Sandy Patti), classic gospel stars (often Black, like Andrae Crouch and Leon Patillo), emerging gospel stars with a bit of stylistic range (Amy Grant), and newer CCM acts who played everything from straight ahead rock (Petra, Resurrection Band) to New Wave experimentation (Steve Taylor, Daniel Amos). We even had a newly born-again Bob Dylan! I had the added bonus of working at a Christian bookstore which was also the only place to buy this new Christian music.

Contemporary Christian Music Magazine

One weekend my friend Brad and I were assigned the task of clearing out the inventory of an independent store that our company had just bought out. We were allowed to take home any of the “demo” records that the store had available for listening, and we both significantly expanded our collections that day.

In those days, before the Internet, finding out about new acts was difficult. So we listened to as many “demo” records as we could, and read about other acts in a couple of magazines (the leading one was helpfully called CCM). I remember articles which actually said things like “If you like (insert secular band name here), you will like (Christian band name).” Let’s just say that it wasn’t always accurate.

This particular playlist, whittled down to an hour, was originally assembled in 2020 and was a bit longer than two hours; this shorter version includes music that I was actually listening to in those years (as opposed to stuff I might have discovered later doing research). Three names deserve more explanation.

Modern Innocence is my friend Grant Cermak’s band. I’m proud to say that Grant is still a friend, 40 years later, and I’m also very happy that he’s digitized the cassette that I played to death back in the ’80s. Look for it on Bandcamp here:

Daniel Amos was a band, despite sounding like an individual artist, and they’d been around since 1974. Starting off with a country sound, they evolved into a more straight ahead rock band by the end of the decade, and when the ’80s arrived, they continued to evolve, embracing the new wave sound. They used humour in their lyrics, but also confronted bigger themes than many of their contemporaries. Band leader Terry Scott Taylor produced records for other artists and remains a prolific musician. I think a lot of their music stands the test of time, and while many other artists’ lyrics now make me cringe, Daniel Amos’ songs are still pretty dear to me.

Contemporary Christian Music Magazine

Michael W. Smith, on the other hand, became a Christian pop juggernaut as the decade continued. His first album though, The Michael W. Smith Project, released in 1983, maintains a very personal place in my heart despite its sentimentality and overproduction. “The Race is On” remains an extremely catchy tune worthy of inclusion on its own merits, but I’ve also included two sappier numbers. “Be Strong and Courageous” always makes me laugh because in my youth group I would always sing the chorus as “Be Wrong and Outrageous.” You can see what I meant about being a black sheep. And “Friends” is there despite its sentimentality because it came out just around the time that the most popular girl in our youth group was killed by a distracted driver while crossing the street. That song carried us through a lot of the grief that followed.

Revisiting this time in my life will always be bittersweet. Alongside the absolutely cringeworthy, there were lots of moments of genuine love and idealism. Though I wouldn’t describe myself as an evangelical anymore (or even a Christian), I hope I’m still essentially that person today, still hopeful and trying my best to love the world, just with a bit more wisdom and a lot more wear and tear. Try to listen with an open mind, or at least an open heart.


The Lifesavors – Christian Twisters (2:13)
Modern Innocence – Alive Alive (2:51)
The 77s – Ba-Ba-Ba-Ba (4:15)
Daniel Amos – (It’s the Eighties, So Where’s Our) Rocket Packs (3:38)
Steve Taylor – I Want to Be a Clone (2:32)
After The Fire – Laser Love (3:27)
Ishmael United – Crowd Trouble (2:55)
Malcolm and the Mirrors – Paint Your Windows White (2:34)
Daniel Amos – Youth With a Machine (2:45)
Resurrection Band – Autograph (4:02)
Daniel Amos – Central Theme (3:17)
Michael W. Smith – The Race is On (3:43)
Daniel Amos – Faces to the Window (2:30)
Daniel Amos – Through the Speakers (2:41)
Michael W. Smith – Be Strong and Courageous (3:44)
Daniel Amos – Home Permanent (3:13)
Ishmael United – Song of the Last Generation (2:31)
Ishmael United – Schizo (2:46)
Michael W. Smith – Friends (4:22)

Thank God For Evolution

I just read an interesting article on Wired News. Former evangelical minister Michael Dowd is now touring the United States in a van with an image of the Jesus and Darwin fishes kissing on its side.

Dowd is a proponent of evolutionary theology, which embraces the science of evolution while maintaining faith in God as the “ultimate reality” behind the process. The article refers to the work of Thomas Berry, whom I am eager to check out. The wikipedia article refers to him as following in the footsteps of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a fascinating thinker who was proposing this sort of understanding back when evolutionary theory was only a few decades old.

I’m sure I’ll be driven back to these thinkers after I finish reading the free PDF download of Dowd’s latest book, entitled Thank God for Evolution. I get the impression this guy likes to shake people up. Growing Fast is growing fast and now offers social networking and live streaming, in addition to Christian-themed videos

This is interesting in light of some of the issues we discussed at our panel at SXSW Interactive this past spring. You can listen to the podcast here. I wonder if there’s a way to measure if more people are actually “attending” church online than offline. They certainly seem to be indulging their curiosity at this new site.

Of course, my fear is always that online “community’ is often just an invitation to flame others with views different than your own. The internet makes it much easier to express views you wouldn’t feel comfortable expressing to a stranger IRL, but it also makes it easier to trash someone else’s views without getting to know them first.

Must keep an eye on this GodTube thing…

SXSW 2007 Wrapup

I know this post is long overdue, but it’s actually taken me this long to recover physically and mentally and catch up a bit at work. This year’s SXSW was even bigger than last year, and despite the fears of my friends and I, it was actually somehow a bit more manageable. This was probably due to a few factors. First, I had a panel to prepare for and that allowed me to focus on that to the exclusion of almost everything else on the Saturday. Another sadder reality was that Brooke’s father passed away just a week before I was to fly to Austin. We spent almost the entire next week with her mum in Collingwood, about an hour and a half north of Toronto. That made it pretty impossible to think about or plan my week too carefully. For a few days, it wasn’t even clear I’d be able to make the trip at all. But in a strange way, it made me less anxious about the panel and about figuring out what I wanted to do every hour of every day. I was just happy to be there. And just so you know, Brooke was able to spend some quality time alone with her mum that week and sent me on my way with her blessing. She’s amazing like that.

I didn’t attend a lot of panels, or take a lot of photos or notes, so I thought I’d just give you a list of highlights and lowlights:


  • My panel was great. It was a pleasure and a privilege to meet some very sharp people who also happen to be warm and genuine about their faith. I’m really hopeful that I can be involved in something like it again next year.
  • Sticking around a few days was a great idea. Although I didn’t buy a Music badge, there were heaps of free day shows. I got to see The Buzzocks(!), The Polyphonic Spree, Apples in Stereo, Peter Bjorn and John, Robyn Hitchcock with Peter Buck and Okkervil River. There was even free food and beer.
  • During one of the parties during Interactive, I was chatting with my friends Kevin and Baratunde when we were joined by a personable young guy talking about films. He introduced himself as Joe and said he was acting in a film that was at the Film festival. During our 40 minute conversation, it dawned on me that we were hanging out with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, star of The Lookout. He turned out to be a great guy, smart and interesting but completely unpretentious.
  • As a panelist, I got a complimentary Gold badge which allowed me to attend both Interactive and Film events. I took the opportunity to see a few films (Reign Over Me, Exiled, and Eagle Versus Shark) and this was a great break from the intensity of hanging around with smart geeks or rocking out at concerts.
  • The panels and keynotes I did attend were almost all interesting and valuable.
  • I focussed more on my writing about film and made a number of useful contacts. My decision to launch Toronto Screen Shots was based on attending a great panel called “Blogging About Film.”


  • The weather in Austin this year was kind of crappy. It rained for several days, which made getting around fairly miserable.
  • Hotels were expensive and filled up really early. Despite sharing with my friends Neil and Kevin, which involved spending five of my eight nights on either an air mattress or a rollaway bed, it still cost me more than US$1,000. I’m going to book my room by July or August next time.
  • Almost everyone I know had some travel snafus on the way home. I wasn’t immune. I flew back Saturday from Austin to Detroit without incident, but my flight from Detroit to Toronto was cancelled for “unscheduled maintenance.” Despite the fact that it’s a one hour flight, there were no flights available until Monday or Tuesday, and the airline would only pay for one night’s accomodation. I banded together with a few other Torontonians and we took a taxi across the border to Windsor and jumped on the train. I got home about seven hours late, and it cost me more money, but there was no way I was staying two days in Detroit, especially at my own expense. Boo airlines!
  • As always, the week went by far too quickly and I didn’t get to spend nearly enough time with people. There were a few people whom I’d wanted to meet for the first time, and didn’t get the chance. Ah well, I’ll be back next year!