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)

Where The Wild Things Were, Part 1

Where The Wild Things Were: My Year as an American College DJ

So, recently I discovered about 10 cassettes of my college radio show from 1992-1993, when I attended Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan for Teachers’ College. This was a hugely tumultuous and important year in my life, and so I’ve decided to make something out of it. I’ve digitised the tapes and am going to recreate the playlists and add some biographical stuff. Maybe this will only be fun for me, but I’m hoping some of my friends and other people might want to get a peek into the early ’90s, both musically and to get a glimpse into my life as a human being.

Part 1 was finished today and uploaded to Mixcloud. I’ll embed the show here, but here’s the intro stuff from the beginning (it runs about six minutes in the audio)


Where The Wild Things Were: My Year as an American College DJ


The years 1992 and 1993 were pivotal ones in my life. In the spring of 1992, I was 27 years old and about to graduate from York University with a Bachelor’s degree in English literature. I was living with my friend Brent in the apartment I had occupied since I was 6 years old, but things weren’t going so well financially. My mum had died in 1987 and since then, my Dad hadn’t really given me any financial or emotional support. After working up the courage to write and share a begging letter with him, I was disheartened when he said he couldn’t help except to offer space in his one bedroom apartment for me to move in.

So after discarding many of my childhood mementoes and saying goodbye to Brent, who’d also been forced to move back in with his parents, I took up residence in a single bed squeezed behind the sofa in my Dad’s living room. The whole apartment smelled like smoke and fried food. It was here that I finished my essays and commuted to university for those last few months.

Over the summer, I applied to both M.A. programmes in English and to Teacher’s College programmes, some as far away as the Maritimes and the U.S. I remember taking the bus to visit the campus at Brock University in St. Catherines, and even visiting Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I loved the campus at Calvin, and the school appealed to me. It was a liberal arts college run by the Christian Reformed Church, a denomination with a heavily Dutch-American (and Dutch-Canadian) population.

Since I’d been to Bible College, it had a certain comfort, althouth it seemed a lot less strict. Students there were known to smoke and drink, although the curriculum was rooted in Christian principles. The academic standards were very high, and the professors were highly qualified and yet accessible. The student population was around 4,000. I came home from my visit really hoping to be able to go.

And then I got an acceptance letter. The only one from a teachers’ college, in fact. Calvin was super expensive (something like US$12,000), but of course the fees included on-campus housing and a meal plan. They were also offering me a significant package of student aid that covered around half of the cost. I just needed to come up with the rest.

One of the main appeals of Calvin was that I could spend a year away from Dad’s apartment, and away from a Toronto that seemed to have run out of good things for me. I didn’t really have a home anymore, and I needed to make some progress toward making a living on my own. I was also eager to get away from an unrequited crush that had been weighing me down for more than five years. I accepted the offer and prayed that somehow the money would come.

I moved into a campus apartment with four other guys, two junior and two seniors. I was 6 or 7 years older than all of them, but they welcomed me with open arms. We moved all the bunk beds into one room, and put a TV and small couch into the other room. We did lots of stuff together, and without those guys, my year would have been much harder.

During orientation week, there was a party, organized in part by Ben and Ryan, two of my housemates, who were residence advisors. They were looking for someone to DJ, so I volunteered. I figured it would be a good way to avoid having to talk to people while still participating. I loved it, and people complimented me on the music I chose. So I decided to ask about getting a weekly slot at WCAL, the campus radio station. It had been going since 1965, even though it was only closed-circuit, which meant you could only hear it on the Calvin campus.

I was a little surprised how easy it was to get on the air. I was given a two hour weekly slot and without too much in the way of orientation, I was let loose on the airwaves. The WCAL office was mostly full of CDs by this point, but there was still some vinyl and even some “cartridges,” which looked a bit like 8-track tapes and which mostly held short station ID bits. Whenever I did my show, there was no one else in the office, although I’d drop by occasionally to borrow CDs when there were people around. Despite that, I never really got to know any of the other DJs.

I started the show at the end of September, initially from 6-8 on Wednesday nights, and it took me a few weeks to come up with the idea of calling it “Where The Wild Things Are.” I’d always loved Maurice Sendak’s book, and the artwork seemed like it would look great on a poster. So I checked the book out of the library, and lo and behold, it came with a 45rpm record that had someone reading the story aloud. I decided to use the first couple of minutes as my intro, right up until the part where the reader says, “And now, cried Max, let the wild rumpus start!” Each week I’d check the book out for a day and then return it the next day. I hadn’t figured out how to record my intro onto a cartridge, which would have saved a lot of hassle.

By December, when this first tape was recorded, I was pretty comfortable on air even as school and my personal life were overwhelming me. I had just returned from a long weekend at home in Toronto, where I’d spent time with my crush. The one I was trying to get over by going away for a year. To make things worse, I’d fallen for a neighbour in my campus apartment complex with the same name. All four of my housemates had girlfriends, and were putting pressure on me to ask out this neighbour. I had passed some state competency exams required for my teaching certificate, but hadn’t yet received my placement for student teaching, so that was making me anxious. I also had no plans for Christmas, since my Dad always spent it with some friends and didn’t invite me along.

So that’s where I was at in December 1992. This first tape uncharacteristically has two shows on it, the first 45 minutes of each of December 2nd and December 9th. I hope you enjoy listening.

My 2021 Project: Making My Music Sound Better

It actually didn’t start out as a project at all. It started with some new Apple products. In 2021, I replaced my iPhone (iPhone SE for old iPhone 6), MacBook Air, and iMac. It was a big hit, but all of them had lasted me 6-7 years. I was mostly very happy with the upgrades except for one thing: iTunes. Now renamed rather uselessly as Music, the software continued to annoy with its bloat, and its blatant efforts to force me to subscribe to the confusingly named Apple Music service. I have always preferred to own rather than rent my music, but Apple is making it increasingly difficult. The final straw came when, in its zeal to “organise” my music folder, it simply deleted hundreds of files. I had been looking for a new way to organise and play my music for years, but this made it urgent.

Roon Interface


Luckily, it didn’t take me very long to find Roon. It’s a subscription based piece of software but it doesn’t mess with my files. It also has a very nice interface, plays high-quality formats like FLAC, and does some other under-the-hood things to make my music sound better. Now I simply point Roon at an external SSD drive (or drives, since I am adding more music all the time), and it finds it, displays the artwork and other information (using, I think), and I’m good to go. Roon is currently US$13/month or US$10/month if billed annually. Use my referral link and get 30 days free!

Bandcamp Interface


I’ve been a fan of Bandcamp for a while now, but it’s worth pointing out that it lets you download your purchases in a huge number of formats, including lossless ones like FLAC, WAV, and AIFF). Not to mention that Bandcamp also pays artists a much larger portion of the purchase price than the iTunes Store does. Don’t even get me started on what the streaming services pay artists. It’s like, nothing. If you have the storage space, I recommend downloading one of the lossless file formats, which will definitely sound better with the right equipment.


ifi Zen DAC

I’ve owned a pair of Grado SR60 headphones for about 10 years, and while they’re great, I began reading more and watching some YouTube channels (Darko Audio and Cheap Audio Man are great, for starters) that made me think I should invest in a headphone amp/DAC (digital analog converter) to give things more oomph. I read some reviews and decided on the ifi Zen DAC. This stylish little unit sits on my desk and adds a lot of depth as well as more power. It’s a very well-reviewed product and it’s built like a tank. I paid around $200 for mine.

Hidizs S9 Pro DAC/Amp

Hidizs S9 Pro Balanced DAC and Amp

For music on the go, which in my case means either my iPhone SE or the Fiio M7 portable music player (which accepts Micro SD cards, so I can store ridiculous amounts of music on it, including lossless FLAC files), it also helps to have a headphone amp/DAC. There are a variety of “dongle DACs” that are available and some can be quite expensive. I did some research and decided on the Hidizs S9 Pro, which I picked up for US$125. It just arrived today, but so far is sounding great!

Moondrop Aria IEM

Moondrop Aria IEMs

IEMs (in-ear monitors) seem to be a fancier version of wired earbuds, and I’ve been blown away by the sound from these Moondrop Arias, which are available for around US$80. Wired headphones and earbuds are almost always going to sound better than Bluetooth ones, at least for now, and these have been getting rave reviews. For the price, they are really outstanding.

Flacbox Interface


Since I’m trying to eliminate Apple’s music playing/syncing software from my life, I am so happy to have found Flacbox, an incredible iOS app that allows me to copy FLAC files (via wifi) to my phone and play them. It’s really well-designed and has a free ad-supported edition as well as a paid edition that’s around $10-15.

As you can see, I play all my music through headphones/earbuds for now. Next year, I’m hoping to find a suitable room in the house for music and will look into buying some decent speakers and maybe an amplifier. For now, though, these simple upgrades have made me so much happier with the music I’m listening to. The only other thing I can recommend for now is buying one or more external SSD drives (I like the Samsung T7) to store your music on. They can be moved around from laptop to desktop with ease and the data transfer speeds are impressive.

My Daughter

It happens on the subway train again. My eyes suddenly fill with tears.

She’s sitting across from me, smiling to herself, earbuds bobbing. It’s my daughter.

This one’s about fifteen, chubby-cheeked, with short bleached hair. Denim jacket and rolled up jeans, Doc Martens. But everything is clean and untorn.

We’re at home, having a good natured argument over who had the better singles, The Shop Assistants or The Razorcuts.

Now I’m telling her it’s a cliche for her to learn the bass, that she should be playing guitar or drums instead. She’s unmoved.

We’re discussing which is the best Wes Anderson film. We don’t agree. We never agree.

I’m telling her to go easy on her mum, that she only wants the best for her. And she can always change her major later on.

Now she’s telling me about a girl she has a crush on at school. Or maybe it’s a boy. Inside I’m hugging myself that she’s telling me any of it.

It’s only been two subway stops. She gets up to leave. I send her a silent blessing. My daughter.

Between the Hammers

Hammer and Anvil

Life has been particularly unkind to me over the past five years. Grief, heartbreak, struggle have been closer than ever. And now there’s more.

I had my annual physical this past fall and mentioned an episode of abdominal pain that was particularly severe. In the past, I’d had these episodes several times a year but dismissed them as bouts of food poisoning. They always passed by the next day, and this latest was only different in its intensity. I started to think maybe I had an intolerance to something. My doctor scheduled a colonoscopy, which was going to be scheduled in any case since I’m over 50. I had this routine procedure just 9 days ago, and afterwards the doctor told me he’d found an obstruction and couldn’t complete the procedure. He took a biopsy and said that I’d need surgery. When I mentioned I’d planned ten weeks of travel beginning on January 15th, he asked if I could cancel it.

I spent the next week in an anxious state of limbo. I told some close friends about the results and figured that my chances of having cancer were about 50/50. My main concern was not having to cancel my trip. My short film series Shorts That Are Not Pants has been running for six years, and my plans in 2018 are ambitious, including monthly screenings and a festival weekend in November. I was returning to volunteer at the Sundance Film Festival for the third time (I missed out last year while I was working in Dublin) and then planning a return to the biggest short film festival in the world, in Clermont-Ferrand, France. After that, I hoped to attend the Berlinale and visit that city for the first time, return to Dublin for a few weeks, attend the Glasgow Short Film Festival for the second year in a row, and then wrap up my trip by attending the Short Waves Festival in Poznan, Poland. I’d mapped out my schedule and booked about half my flights and accommodation. I’d arranged for my cats to be taken care of, and had found a lovely couple to sublet my apartment until the end of March. To be quite honest, my first reaction to the colonoscopy results was annoyance at having to change or even cancel my trip.

So on Tuesday this week, I went in prepared to bargain. Surely the surgery could wait a few weeks or even months. I had made commitments and plans and didn’t want to change them. I wasn’t that surprised when the word “carcinoma” was mentioned. My surgeon calmly explained that the protocols of cancer care in our province required him to operate within a month of diagnosis. He agreed that I didn’t seem symptomatic and that I could travel but that my surgery was going to be scheduled for Tuesday February 13. This allows me to attend Sundance and Clermont-Ferrand, the first two legs of my trip, and the ones for which I’d already arranged flights and accommodations. I’ll return to Canada on February 9th, and have the weekend to prepare for my surgery.

Knowing I’m scheduled to leave on Monday, the good people at St. Joseph’s Health Centre quickly scheduled blood work, my pre-admission appointment, and a CT scan all for this week. I came home Tuesday, a bit numb, and started letting some people know the news. I’ve stuck to just telling people the facts, and the practical arrangements for the surgery. I don’t know how to feel about having cancer yet. The surgeon said they won’t know what stage it’s at or my prognosis until they’ve removed it from my body. So for the next month, I’ll be in a busy fog, which is maybe the best kind of space to be in.

In 1986, my mother told me she had lung cancer, and I remember holding onto that news for weeks, not wanting to tell any of my friends. I was afraid of two things. One, that it would make the whole thing real and give it power. And two, that everyone around me would start treating me differently, with pity or with awkwardness. I knew that what I needed was connection, and that our fear of disease and death would create distance. Of course, that feeling came flooding back this week. And I’m still afraid of being seen as “sick” and pushed away with well-meaning platitudes. But holding stuff in and keeping secrets is its own kind of cancer, so I won’t do that.

I’ve felt a lot of shame over the past few years, for how my life didn’t turn out the way I’d expected, or wanted. This latest bout of bad news seems weirdly unsurprising to me. I don’t mean to sound pessimistic. It’s just that I’ve been dealing with a lot and this just joins the rest of that junk. In 1997, I created my very first home page and gave it the title “Between the Hammers.” It was a reference to a line from The Ninth Duino Elegy from Rainer Maria Rilke:

Between the hammers our heart
endures, just as the tongue does
between the teeth and, despite that,
still is able to praise.

Even back then, I saw my life as one filled with struggles, and my aspiration was to have a heart that endured and kept praising. I may not leave much of a legacy when I leave this world, but if people talk about me as someone with a big and tender heart, then I’ll be okay with that.

Re-reading the entire poem now is quite powerful. Here’s something from the beginning:

…everything here
apparently needs us, this fleeting world, which in some strange way
keeps calling to us. Us, the most fleeting of all.
Once for each thing. Just once; no more. And we too,
just once. And never again. But to have been
this once, completely, even if only once:
to have been at one with the earth, seems beyond undoing.

And the last section:

Look, I am living. On what? Neither childhood nor future
grows any smaller… Superabundant being
wells up in my heart.