A carpenter by trade, John Elliott of Dessau brought the same careful craftsmanship to his music as he did to his woodworking. While the bookshelves and staircases he created for the homes in Nashville's wealthy Belle Meade suburb were elegant and beautiful, the music he made as the brains behind Dessau was brash, ugly, and utilitarian. Mining a similar artistic vein as Nitzer Ebb and early Ministry, Dessau delivered powerful, rhythmic industrial dance tracks that translated better to the dancefloor than to the home stereo.
Elliott began his musical career as the drummer for punk rock outfit Cloverbottom. Named after a local state-run home for handicapped children, the band released Nashville's first indie rock record, the Anarchy in the Music City EP in 1980. Elliott later experimented with electronic percussion as a member of the Actuals (later known as Factual). Fed up with the stagnant Nashville rock scene, Elliott moved to Chicago in 1982, where he made important friendships with producer Martin Hannett (Joy Division, New Order) and Ministry member Paul Barker. Returning to Nashville in 1985, Elliott served as best man at Hannett's wedding, luring the producer into the studio to work on Dessau's first EP, Red Languages.
Working with veteran Nashville rockers Skot Nelson (guitars) and Mike Orr (bass), Dessau would release a series of dance-oriented EPs through the latter half of the '80s, including Happy Mood in 1986. The 1988 Mad Hog EP featured a remix of the minor dance hit "Unshakeable" by Ministry's Al Jourgensen. Both Jourgensen and Paul Barker would contribute to a 1988 cover of Joy Division's "Isolation" which would become Dessau's dancefloor breakthrough. A full-length album, Exercise in Tension, would follow in 1989. Produced by Giles Reaves and including "Isolation," the CD version included "Beijing," Dessau's third (and last) hit dance track. With industrial dance becoming old hat in the face of the Seattle revolution, Elliott disbanded Dessau.
During the '90s, Elliott turned toward contemporary Christian music, working with artists like Newsboys and Albertina Walker. Elliott joined former-Chagall Guevara members Dave Perkins and Lynn Nichols in the band Passafist, the group's 1995 self-titled album receiving a Dove Award nomination for Best Christian Heavy Metal Album. Re-forming Dessau with guitarist Norm Rau, Elliott released the heavier, less dance-oriented Details Sketchy in 1995, collaborating with members of Ministry, Pigface, and Filter. Mausoleum Records would later buy the rights to Dessau's back catalog; old friends Jourgensen and Barker revisiting and remixing Dessau songs like "Beijing," "Skeletons By Nature," and "Isolation" for the label's 1995 CD reissue.