Artist Spotlight: Dessau (or; The Post-Punk/Industrial Band That Never Made It)

There isn’t a lot on this band out there, back in the wild west of the internet there were more interviews and things, but it seems they’ve all been nuked. This will be short, but this band should have a little bit more attention. This will be pretty brief.


Dessau was a post-punk/industrial band from Nashville, TN. They were pretty early on the scene, but for some reason never were able to make it big after Ministry, Nine Inch Nails, and all the others who made much more of an impact.

Dessau mainman John Elliott started as the drummer in a Nashville punk band Cloverbottom, and (allegedly) released the first indie record in Nashville, Anarchy In Music City, in 1980. For some reason, someone has this listed on Discogs for the princely sum of $399.00. Why, I have no idea.

(Cloverbottom reunited with a bunch of other Nashville punk bands on December 9, 2019 for a “40th Anniversary of Punk Rawk In Nashville”, but I couldn’t find out if Elliott took part).

In 1981 or 1982, depending on the source, Elliott made his way to Chicago. It was there he made acquaintances with Al Jourgensen and Paul Barker of Ministry.  Upon returning to Nashville in 1983 (or 1985), Elliott hooked up with The Actuals, which became Factual, playing minimalist New Wave.

Red Languages (1985)

Dessau self-released the Red Languages twelve inch in 1985, which makes it more likely he returned to Nashville in 1983, as Factual was over by 1984. In a way, this EP puts Dessau on a similar trajectory as Ministry, in that their first releases are very different from what they would become later. I would say that Red Languages is closer to the end result, though. “Red Languages” and “Crutch of Utility” would both be reissued later on CD, which makes sense because they are still passable as post-punk. “First Year” (which features Elliott’s future wife Kim Ervin on co-vocals), is much more electronic and would be a perfect stand in for that dance sequence in Breakfast Club, never had a re-release.

Happy Mood (1986)

The next twelve-inch, Happy Mood, is a leap forward for the group, but it’s also a hodge-podge affair. It has 4 tracks, and three different bassists on it, and two different guitarists, not including Elliott himself. It has “First Year” again (this time his wife credited as Kim Ervin Elliott, but she is never involved again), and two songs that will all be reworked, remixed or reissued again. “Unshakeable” and “Europe Light”.  “Imperial House” could be the same as “Imperial Hotel” which shows up on The Truth Hurts, but as Happy Mood is the one thing I don’t have, I couldn’t confirm.

Isolation (1988)

The first twelve-inch single from Dessau for 1988 was a cover of Joy Division’s “Isolation”, which was produced by Jourgensen and has bass guitar by Barker. This track really begins Elliott’s more harsh vocal style, more in line with the growing Industrial scene. “Isolation” was allegedly a “hit” at alternative radio and dance clubs. It’s entirely possible. The B-Side, “Crowfest”, will be issued again with Isolation on the upcoming Exercise In Tension.

Mad Hog (1988)

The second twelve-inch for 1988, Mad Hog, continues the Jourgensen connection. Four tracks (two bass players this time), two versions of “Unshakeable”, both remixed by Jourgensen and Barker, and two new songs, “Thanksgiving” and “Skeletons By Nature”. “Thanksgiving” is a weird, minimalist sort of track, while “Skeletons” is a little more aggro… but even when this band approaches “industrial” in the more mainstream sense, they never get super heavy-metal with it, even when they cover Ministry (more on that later).

Exercise In Tension (1988) / Beijing (1990)

The group finally releases a full album on Caroline Records! This is definitely more industrial in the classic sense, with it’s programmed drums, but the guitars are more frail and post-punk, and sometimes even approach “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” levels of shrill. Of the prior releases, this one includes “Isolation”, “Crowfest”, and “Europe Light”. “Europe Light” will be issued again as a B-side to the non-album single “Beijing” in 1990.

Passafist (1993 or 1994)

After releasing “Beijing” as a single, Elliott saw the writing on the wall, grunge (there’s that word again) was bubbling just under the surface. Elliott disbanded Dessau, and began working with Christian rock bands in a production capacity. He formed Passafist, who released a self-titled album, and actually won awards for being the best Christian heavy metal album of that year… that also has a cover of Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man” on it. Let that sink in.

I never owned this, I didn’t even know about it until recently… very recently. As in, when I was writing this. The whole thing is up on YouTube, and it’s terrible. It’s so bad, I can’t even articulate it. All of the songs combined, have a total of just over 3000 views.

Dessau (1995) / Details Sketchy (1995 or 1996)

For reasons unknown, Elliott reformed Dessau in the mid 90s. Work began on Details Sketchy with more help from Paul Barker, and also including Die Warzau, Future Filter main dude Richard Patrick, and Revolting Cocks alum (and Belgian Mega Star*) Luc Van Acker.

Prior to this reunion, by some weird twist, Mausoleum Records based out of Germany acquired the rights to all of Dessau’s prior singles, except for Red Languages which was self-released. It’s a weird hodge-podge, 2 songs from Exercise In Tension, 2 from Mad Hog, The non-album “Beijing”, “Isolation” (again), and yet a fourth version of Unshakeable, this time remixed by Van Acker. It also had 5 tracks not previously released anywhere. All of this was released as a self-titled album. Elliott stated that this was done on purpose to confuse people away from buying the forthcoming Details Sketchy, but I can’t imagine they were well known enough for that sort of label shenanigans.

Meanwhile, Details Sketchy, had two variations of “Sun” (“Sun” and “Sun Burn”), and a fifth version of “Unshakeable”. It’s strange, but <i>Dessau</i> functions as a better overview of the band and a more cohesive album, despite pulling recordings from over a span of four years.

I was working college radio in late ’96, early ’97. Nearly everything in the station had been stolen, and no one really cared. I did figure out that the way to get free CDs was to appoint yourself the director of a genre, and then call labels and they’d send you promos! But I digress. So, for some reason, the Dessau disc called to me, so I tried it out. I liked it a lot, it was familiar, but just different enough. It’s didn’t have the buzzsaw guitars of early Ministry, it didn’t have the self-hatred of Nine Inch Nails, and it didn’t have the copy and paste of KMFDM. What it did have was beats, driving bass, ominous synths, shouting vocals, and guitars that were used more as a tool than an engine. “Suffer” started with those keyboards, then only really got heavy during the chorus, “Suffer if you need to, Suffer to be beautiful!” It really kind of sets the template for a lot of the songs, beats, bass, synths, and then guitars on the chorus, but they vary it enough to make it interesting. “Skeletons By Nature” has a weird synth break in the middle where it sounds like an homage to John Carpenter soundtracks, and “Cull” was just a driving song that was made for a pit. “Isolation” sounds like one of their songs, and it was years before I realized it was a cover, I hadn’t heard of Joy Division yet.

The self-titled was good enough, that I was able to mail order Details Sketchy, but it took forever. When it did arrive, it was good. The re-recorded versions were good, the new material was also good, but as an album, it was thin.

One last gasp before Dessau calls it quits. In 1999, they appeared on Another Prick In the Wall, the second Ministry tribute on Invisible Records. The band cover’s “Revenge” from Ministry’s With Sympathy, which doesn’t sound like either New Wave Ministry or Industrial Ministry. But it sounds good.

The Truth Hurts (2009)

Without anyone having to ask, Dessau released The Truth Hurts, a collection of unreleased and semi-rare material. Well, I guess all of this band is rare. The album featured five unreleased tracks with Barker on bass, as well as a live version of “Isolation”, and a live version of “Ceremony”, another Joy Division cover. This was supposed to be a “precursor to new music for the first time in 10 years”, but it’s now 11 years after that… so it’s probably not coming.

So, there it is. An industrial/post-punk band that deserved more, but just never got there. If you like early Ministry and the early Wax Trax! sound, dig these CDs up, especially Exercise In Tension and Dessau.

*”Belgian Mega Star” is what Luc Van Acker had as his occupation on his passport when he first came to the United States.