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Atlantic Celebrates Its 40 Years of Rock and Soul; [Review]


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Copyright New York Times Company May 16, 1988

by Jon Pareles

What may have been the world's longest television commercial was staged Saturday, when Atlantic Records celebrated its 40th anniversary with a 12-hour concert at Madison Square Garden. Corporate loyalty was constantly reaffirmed during the program, which was telecast live in its entirety by the British Broadcasting Corporation and for its last five and a half hours by Home Box Office, with HBO repeats and a possible network broadcast still to come.

Ticket sales, television rights and corporate sponsorship will yield between $10 million and $13 million to be disbursed to various charities (from Amnesty International to the Rhythm-and-Blues Foundation, for indigent performers) by the Atlantic Records Foundation, according to a company spokesman. But Atlantic's self-interest was obvious, as it plugged its current best sellers and its new dance-pop hopefuls while capitalizing on its history.

Led Zeppelin reunited for the occasion, as did the Rascals and Vanilla Fudge; La Vern Baker gave her first New York performance in 20 years, strutting jauntily through ''Saved.'' The Bee Gees played their first live show since 1979, harmonizing neatly, while Wilson Pickett, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas and Sam Moore (of Sam and Dave) were backed by members of the MG's, the Memphis studio band that appeared on their classic 1960's soul records. Debbie Gibson, the 17-year-old singer and songwriter, made her first New York appearance with a full band, showing remarkable assurance and control in a mini-set of pert, frisky dance-pop.

Other past and present Atlantic performers - Ruth Brown, the Coasters, Ben E. King, Yes, Iron Butterfly, the Spinners, Nu Shooz, Foreigner, Manhattan Transfer, Levert, Miki Howard, Laura Branigan, Bob Geldof, Stacey Q. and a newcomer, Rachelle Caprini, who does a shrill imitation of Aretha Franklin - performed segments ranging from a single song with taped backup to 25 minutes of live music. Phil Collins (with and without his band, Genesis), Roberta Flack and Crosby, Stills and Nash appeared repeatedly.

It was a varied concert, but not a full reflection of Atlantic's evolution from an independent rhythm-and-blues label to a safe, mainstream rock outlet; its most recent successes have been pallid, disposable dance-pop. Despite its length, the concert lacked many of the label's most important performers: Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin for soul, the Rolling Stones for rock, Cream and the Allman Brothers for blues-based jamming, King Crimson for progressive-rock, Chic for disco, Bette Midler for decorum-busting camp.

Instead, Iron Butterfly and Vanilla Fudge delivered kitschy psychedelic jams; Yes and Three (with Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer of Emerson, Lake and Palmer) exemplified progressive-rock bombast; Genesis and Foreigner played formularized mainstream pop-rock. The only allusions to Atlantic's jazz catalogue were a two-song spot by Bobby Short and a funk-jazz segment by the flutist Herbie Mann, with a newcomer, Gerald Albright; luckily, Mr. Mann had a snappy funk band with Bernard Purdie on drums.

A Memphis soul segment mixed respectful tributes to Otis Redding (including a well-sung, understated version of ''Dock of the Bay'' by, of all people, Paul Rodgers of Bad Company) with the ugly, amateurish minstrelsy of Paul Shaffer and Dan Aykroyd. Pairing Mr. Aykroyd, a nonsinger, with Sam Moore - who sang with glorious fervor and finesse -was disgraceful.

Except for Robert Plant, who led his own band as well as rejoining Led Zeppelin, the label's post-1968 representatives showed little sense of humor. The rhythm-and-blues and soul singers, and their material, have aged far more gracefully than the rockers; the Spinners, Ruth Brown and the Coasters turned in exuberant performances.

Inside Madison Square Garden, the concert mixed tedium and enjoyment; endless idle patter during set changes in the afternoon, video re-runs from the afternoon in the evening. But a vocal majority of the audience was thrilled just to see Led Zeppelin onstage, with Jason Bonham in place of his late father, John Bonham, on drums.

Led Zeppelin, unlike its many imitators who now clog rock radio, usually tempered its brute force with musicianly experiments, and the reunited band still does. In a streamlined half-hour set, the band turned around the beat of ''Whole Lotta Love'' and reveled in the spaces and Arab inflections of ''Kashmir.'' Mr. Plant, who used to strut and preen self-importantly, now plays his role with a bit of mature amusement while still finding new ways to stretch and bend 15-year-old lyrics. Led Zeppelin ended a mixed concert with triumphant, explosive rock

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