"I wish people would stop calling me Italian and some call me a Cockney Italian, I am neither I am part Russian, Swedish or Finnish, Belgian, Irish and English." - PR on facebook, 2015.
In 1965, when London's guitarists were waking up to fuzz, Rush was 22 years old, and was right in there, coming up with 4 different pedals in the next 18 months, but he soon moved away from pedals and eventually from musical equipment altogether. Pepe's first pedal was the Fuzzy, based on the origInal American Maestro Fuzz-tone, followed by three iterations of the Rush Pepbox, marketed and then manufactured by WEM.
Along with his daughter Lucy he has now produced a new reissue of the original Pepbox, now available from Macari's in Charing Cross Road, London. To celebrate this event I'm publishing the full interview.
S - how did you get involved in electronics?
P - When I was about 12 or so I came home from school one day and my grandad was building an amplifier, a valve amplifier, and I sort of helped him with it - I didn't know anything about it but I helped him, and it interested me. Then later I worked for a company servicing radios and things, called Ivoff's, a big company in Oxford Street, and then I worked in a recording studio for a while, and then I started my own studio up. My dad was conducting at the Talk Of The Town, and he was earning quite a bit of money from it so we started this small studio in Berwick Street, off Oxford Street around 1959. And then I started building amps.
S- Did you make an amp for Jet Harris? I found a reference to this online somewhere
P - No - I don't think I did, but there's a picture of him using one [of our amps]. I knew Jet Harris because I recorded a demo of Apache, their first single. They were recording something for Jerry Laudon, and they were the backing group for it, and they said 'we're set up, can we record this demo?' So I recorded it and they all said it was better than the one EMI recorded.
Anyway so I got into that then I started building disco equipment, I got a factory round the corner from the studio for the disco gear. I built a mixer for the London Palladium in 1968, and did some stuff for ATV, which is now Central Television. I built the Palladium another mixer, a bigger one in '78.
S - You built some stuff for Pete Townshend too?
P -Yes, I built his home studio, including some limiters that he still uses on all his recordings. I may start to make them again as he keeps telling me I should make them.
S - So in 1965, you were involved in quite a variety of things
P - Yeah - amplifiers, mixers, we used the name Rush Electronics
S- Do you remember hearing fuzz for the first time - the new sound?
P - Yeah - someone brought in a fuzz pedal one day - they were raving about the sound it made - so I just thought 'oh, you overdrive a transistor, and it'll do it, so we just made some circuits up and modified it, tweaked it until it sounded right.
We made some and sold them to a few different groups, and then Charlie Watkins came along and he wanted to do a deal, where he took over production.
S - Where was the Pepbox sold?
P - They were sold by me personally first of all - people would hear about it and come up to the factory in Portland Mews, and we'd sell direct. That's how we sold the amps as well.
S - There's an advert for the pedal that lists some of the bands that used it - was that a kind of sponsorship /endorsement thing?
They either bought them or Watkins gave them to them - he gave the Beatles a couple but they were ones that I had made because they were in my case. A few other groups used them but I don't remember who they were now.
S- There's a famous photo of John Lennon with one in the studio in 1966 - was that a prototype?
P - No, I built quite a few like that, because Watkins weren't really tooled up to build them themselves first of all. We made them and gave them to him and he sold them on, then after that he took over making them and was giving me a commission on each one he made, and when he stopped giving me the commission we fell out over it. They went over themselves, modified it and starting putting it in their amplifiers, and not giving me my commission and that's when it all went wrong.
My dad wouldn't sue them, my mum and I both wanted to sue them, they were both in the business with me, my dad said 'no, leave it' and Watikins was laughing, he got away with it.
S - So there the red wedge - around 65-66, and two versions in the grey flatter wedge and then the long flat one...
P - Yes - then WEM slowly took my name off it.
S - So which version of the circuit is the new Rush Pepbox reissue? The three transistor Germanium version?
P - Yes - the original germanium.
[note - germanium transistors can be awkward to work with - the existing Pepbox reissues already on the market are the later silicon transistor version.]
S - So the pedals thing was really a side-line to the main amps business?
P - Yeah - well it was quite important - we made money out of it, but it wasn't the main thing i did.
S - Did you have any contact with other people making effects?
P - No - I always tried to keep away from other music business people, they are all crooks.
S- When the deal with WEM finished you didn't carry on making pedals?
P - No - I was into other things.
S- The main source of info about you in print and on the internet is this interview with Pete Townshend in 2007.
P - I think I've read that - he calls me a cockney Italian, which annoys me as I'm not!
S -He mentions that you were involved with Apple Corps and 'Magic' Alex Mardas
P - I sold the Beatles or Apple Corps the circuitry for the first Palladium mixer, and we made the metalwork for the modules for him, for the Apple studio, but he modified it, and completely ruined it. It was a perfectly good mixer, professional standard, it was passed by the technical department at ATV, but he just completely messed it up, it was all distortion and noise and everything else. He was a bit of a con-man.
S - What did you do next?
P - By '68 I was building mixers, and I was doing Pete Townshend's stuff so I'd got away from the distortion and the gimmicks into recording equipment, or sound reinforcement stuff. I've built a lot of different things, some limiters, some peak programme meters, a professional type of meter, not like the VU meter, and amplifiers… I built a studio in the Top Ten Club in Hamburg, on the Reeperbahn. There weren't many companies around then making mixers and stuff like that, so it was great.
I moved from the West End up to Southgate in North London - I started doing different jobs and I was doing stuff in America modifying mixers - they were sending the stuff over here and I was modifying them. Then I moved out of music stuff and into bank communications in the City, quite a bit of that, it was really good money, but in 1992 my house and workshop burnt down, so everything finished, it all stopped, and I'm slowly getting it all back together again. It was a bit of a shock losing all your workshop, and all your tools and instruments, test equipment… and that's it really.
S - the new prototype for Macari's, you're working on that at the moment
P - Yeah - I'm waiting for the boards - I thought it would be easier to use a proper pcb rather than doing it hard-wired, so that's done, and my engraving machine got damaged, the chap's got the metalworking gear so he's going to engrave the panels for me too.
I've been in touch with David Toop - he loaned me his flat box Silicon Pepbox for me to trace the circuit, but we're not using that circuit; I said I'd give him one of the new ones, he said I'll write an article on it anyway.
S - You're going to send one to Pete Townshend too…
P - Yeah, I'll let him have one because he's on at me to make this limiter. He's a good guy - I haven't seen him since about 1972, but we speak and exchange emails and stuff. He gave me a guitar to use with it. It's an Ovation - I thought I was just going to borrow it, but when I spoke to his office, they said oh no Pete said you can keep it. It's nice, it's got all gold plated bits on it, quite a good sounding guitar. Someone suggested I could get a few thousand pounds for that, but I'm not selling it, that would be disgusting, it was given to me - I'd give it back to Pete if he wants to sell it . He's always been straight with me, I've always been straight with him.
He was always very serious about things, He lived near me in Soho, a few hundred yards away.
S - So did you just bump into him?
P - No - I put a sound system in a place in Putney High Street, on the corner of the Upper Richmond Road, and The Who played there, when they were really small, and their PA amplifier had gone wrong - it was a Vox, and the chap introduced me to him and he asked me to fix it, so I said 'yeah, I'm in the West End', and he said 'where? I live in Brewer Street' I said 'oh yeah I live in Old Compton Street, we're right on top of each other'. So I took it and fixed it the next morning and he came round. He met my dad, who was a professional session musician, and they talked - my dad knew his dad, Cliff Townshend, another musician, and we chatted and he used to come round.
Later I used to cycle down to near Eel Pie Island in Twickenham [where Townshend moved to after leaving Soho], with a guy who worked for me. We used to get Chinese takeaway and once we were riding up from the Chinese place, from the river and he was at his garden gate. He said 'what are you doing over here?', I said 'Oh, we've just got some food, we're going to go and sit on the river bank and eat it' and he says 'ah - come in - come and sit in here', so we went into the kitchen, he made us tea and ate our takeaway - and that became a regular thing. We'd go up and he'd mess about and I'd tweak a few things on his mixer or his limiters and that's when we used to see him a lot. The last time I saw him was just after my Dad died, in 1972, and then I sort of lost contact with him, and then I got back in contact again. He was really pleased to hear from me and soon we were chatting like old times. He's a nice guy.