Charles Lothian Lloyd “Charlie” Owen is an Australian multi-instrumentalist and producer. He has been a member of The New Christs (1987–90), Louis Tillett and His Cast of Aspersions (1990), Tex, Don and Charlie (1993–95, 2005–06), and Beasts of Bourbon (1996–97, 2003). His solo album, Vertigo and Other Phobias, appeared in 1994 on Red Eye/Polydor.
Owen has produced albums by The Plunderers, Louis Tillett (both solo and in a duo with Owen), Tex Perkins, and Penny Ikinger. As a session player, he has appeared on albums by Tony Buck, Kim Salmon and the Surrealists, Robert Forster, Spencer P. Jones, The Cruel Sea, Steve Prestwich, Conway Savage and Don Walker. In May 2012 Australian Guitar magazine listed Owen in the Top 40 of Australia’s best guitarists.
Owen’s full name is Charles Lothian Lloyd Owen. He was raised with two older sisters, both became visual artists. His father was a captain in the navy, he gave Owen preliminary piano and guitar lessons. His mother was a visual artist who tried to teach him to paint “Jesus how embarrassing, when all my friends were off trying to find cigarette butts to smoke and that… painting bloody pictures, but that was just what we did”.
At about eight or nine-years-old he formed a duo, Hot Dogs, with a neighbour to play for their parents, they only knew part of “Walk, Don’t Run”, a surf-jazz instrumental from 1954 by The Ventures. While he was still at primary school the family moved from [where?] to Canberra and, at age 12 or 13, with an older friend he played at a youth club, Griffin Centre. His biggest influences were Django Reinhardt’s “irreverence” and John Coltrane’s “reverence”.
Owen and his family then moved to Brisbane, where he was “a bit lonely” and “just sat around in my room playing guitar”. He formed a group with a saxophone player from music class at secondary school. Another group was OME (aka Original Music Ensemble), which was an improvisation group – most of his early playing was in musical theatre and jazz. He was also in Fabulous Dingo Family, co-founded by jazz composer David Pyle, and named after Azaria Chamberlain.
In 1982 he was in Ninja Skill, a rock band, alongside Charlie Aber, John Caskey, Rick Caskey, Stephen Marskett, and Larry Ponting. He left in 1984 and relocated to Sydney. In 1985 he played with Tango Bravo which had Tracy Bartelle, Tony Buck on drums, Dave Dwyer, Steve Harris, Mauro Rubby and John Sharp. He described the group as a “commercial pop thing” and initially he had no particular concerns about the group’s direction, however “we’d gotten some deal to make a single and I just went, ‘No, this shit’s too much'” – he suddenly left the band.
Owen’s earliest recorded work was for Meera Atkinson, a performance poet, on her album, This Is the Planet (1987), which was produced by Rob Younger (Died Pretty, Lime Spiders, The Stems). Other session musicians included Brett Myers, Ron Peno, and Louis Tillett. By February 1987 Owen was invited by Younger to join a reformed version of The New Christs on lead guitar. With Younger on lead vocals, the line-up also had Jim Dickson (ex-Railroad Gin, Survivors, Passengers, Barracudas) on bass guitar and Louis Burdett (ex-Powerhouse, Ed Kuepper Band) on drums. Owen co-wrote their fourth single, “Another Sin” (June 1989), with Dickson, Younger and Nick Fisher (ex-Wet Taxis) – Burdett’s replacement.
During 1987 Owen also provided guitar, with Burdett on drums, for Louis Tillett’s (ex-Wet Taxis) debut solo album, Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell (November). Also on the album were Penny Ikinger on guitar (Wet Taxis) and Diane Spence on saxophone (Wet Taxis & Great White Noise); and Lenny Bastiaans on bass guitar (Great White Noise). Stuart Coupe from The Canberra Times described the album as “a wonderful mixture of jazz, blues and rock’n’roll. Above all it’s a spirited, passionate and diverse performance from a little known figure on the fringes of the rock’n’roll scene”.
Owen also worked with Tillett in the group, Paris Green, which “covered material ranging from Mose Allison to John Coltrane, Ray Charles to Nina Simone, and on any given night there was as many as nine or ten musicians on stage”. In June 1988 Owen was the record producer for The Plunderers five-track extended play, Trust Us. As a member of New Christs, Owen supplied guitar, piano and organ, as well as co-writing, for their debut album, Distemper (August 1989). Australian musicologist, Ian McFarlane, described the album as “the definitive statement on the band’s sound and style. It contained a wealth of powerful tracks”. However later that year the group disbanded.
Owen completed session work on Penguins on Safari’s Normal Soon and Tony Buck’s The Shape of Things to Come (both 1989). Also that year Owen joined ex-Cold Chisel pianist and keyboardist, Don Walker, in a blues rock band, Catfish; which toured Australia. In 1990 Owen teamed with Tillet again, in Louis Tillett and His Cast of Aspersions, both produced the group’s album, A Cast of Aspersions (April). McFarlane noted that it was “eclectic set of material driven by Tillett’s booming baritone voice and smouldering organ, Owen’s jagged guitar lines and the swinging brass arrangements”.
Owen resumed work with Catfish, he appeared on their second album, Ruby (October 1991), and toured in support of its release. Also in 1991 Owen joined Divinyls on tour promoting their self-titled album issued January, Owen played rhythm guitar on Divinyls Live (1991) alongside founding mainstays, Chrissy Amphlett on lead vocals and Mark McEntee on lead guitar, together with Lee Borkman on keyboards, Jerome Smith on bass guitar, and Charlie Drayton on drums.
Late in 1992 Tex Perkins (of Beasts of Bourbon, The Cruel Sea) contacted Owen and Walker to work together on four live-to-air tracks for a broadcast by national radio station, JJJ. It was recorded as JJJ Live at the Wireless. The trio made a “vague promise to do something more” in the future. Six months later Perkins and Walker contacted Owen again, and they formed Tex, Don and Charlie to record their debut album, Sad But True (November 1993). For the album Owen supplied guitar, dobro and lapsteel. It reached the top 40 on the ARIA Albums Chart.
The Canberra Times’ Mike Gee noted that most of the material was written Perkins and/or Walker but “that isn’t to overlook Owens’ guitar work and his swampy instrumental ‘Dead Dog Boogie'”. McFarlane described the album as a “rootsy collection of acoustic, country-blues songs full of steel guitar and sparse piano”. While fellow journalists, John O’Donnell, Toby Creswell and Craig Mathieson, listed it in their book, 100 Best Australian Albums (October 2010). They felt it contained “stories plucked from the night or passed along on back verandahs” and that “Dead Dog Boogie” was a “rambunctious, psychedelic country fair instrumental”.
Also in 1993 Owen, on dobro, lapsteel, banjo and organ, joined Maurice Frawley and Working Class Ringos, a rootsy country-blues band. With Frawley on lead vocals and lead guitar, were Des Hefner (The Birthday Party, The Slaughtermen) on drums, and Shane Walsh on bass guitar. Walker described the group as “the best after-midnight band in the world”. Owen called them “the bad boys of folk” who played “the most passionate, beautiful, rollicking, cheeky, heartfelt music you could ever hear”.
In June 1993 Owen, Chris Wilson, and three former members of The Triffids: David McComb, Robert McComb and Graham Lee guested on Acuff’s Rose’s debut studio album, Never Comin’ Down. In December that year Owen rejoined Divinyls for another tour of Australia. Working Class Ringos released an extended play, Whoop Whoop in 1994 and followed with their debut album Livin’ Lazy in May 1995.
In 1994 Tex, Don and Charlie toured Australia and recorded a live album, Monday Morning Coming Down…, and a related single, “What I Done to Her”, which were issued in September. The track was co-written by Owen and Perkins, it was used on the soundtrack for the 2002 film, Australian Rules. Owen was a session musician on albums: Robert Forster’s I Had a New York Girlfriend, Spencer P. Jones’ Rumour of Death (both 1994); The Cruel Sea’s Three Legged Dog (April 1995); and Perkins’ solo album, Far Be it from Me (1996).
Owen joined Perkins in a reformed line-up of the latter’s group, Beasts of Bourbon, in September 1996 alongside Brian Henry Hooper on bass guitar, Jones on guitar and Tony Pola on drums. This line-up recorded the group’s fifth studio album, Gone (January 1997), which reached the Top 50 on the ARIA Albums Chart. The group disbanded again by the end of that year.
Back in 1994 Owen was also on guitar, bass guitar, piano, organ, drums and percussion in a duo with Joel Silbersher (ex-God, Hoss, Sabotage) on lead vocals, guitar, drums, harmonica and keyboards. The duo issued an album, Tendrils, in the next year. They adopted the album’s name for their duo and as Tendrils issued another album, Soaking Red, in 1998 on Half A Cow Records.
The label promoted the album as “organic, darkly beautiful, sparse & intense”. NME’s reviewer found “tales of lives gone violently awry, set to elusive, near-impressionistic folkadelic orchestration. Organs proffer a narcotic balm, while guitars are picked with pointed economy, like the jibes of an estranged friend”. At the ARIA Music Awards of 1999 it was nominated for Best Alternative Release.
In 2000 Owen appeared on Steve Prestwich’s Since You’ve Been Gone and Conway Savage’s Nothing Broken. Also that year he produced and provided guitar for Perkins’ second solo album, Dark Horses and joined Tex Perkins and the Dark Horses to promote its release. Also in the line-up were Silbersher, Murray Paterson, and Scritch.
In March 2005 Tex, Don and Charlie reconvened to record their second album, All is Forgiven. It was shortlisted for the Australian Music Prize. The trio promoted the release with a national tour into early 2006. Also during 2006 Owen provided acoustic guitar for Walker’s second solo album, Cutting Back (July).
In May 2009 band mate, Maurice Frawley, died of liver cancer. Owen worked with another of Frawley’s band mates, Paul Kelly, to organise a tribute album, Long Gone Whistle – The Songs of Maurice Frawley (August 2010). Also appearing on the 3× CD release were Amphlett, Perkins, Walker, The Drones, The Kill Devil Hills, Megan Washington and Dan Sultan. A follow up concert in late August launched the album and raised money for one of Frawley’s causes, Rochester Secondary College’s music program.
In May 2012 Australian Guitar magazine listed Owen in the Top 40 of Australia’s best guitarists.