POP MUSIC REVIEW : Zeppelin, Bee Gees Lead Atlantic Records Salute

Times Pop Music Critic

Talk about pop contrasts.

Three days after Irving Berlin, the most beloved American songwriter of the 20th Century, was honored at a black-tie affair at Carnegie Hall, a jeans and T-shirt crowd gathered Saturday at Madison Square Garden for a 13-hour concert starring heavy-metal pioneers Led Zeppelin.

The Garden event, officially titled “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll” was designed to salute Atlantic Records, whose championing of black music and rock in the ‘50s and ‘60s may have done more than any other record company to shape pop music in the second half of this century.

But at times the evening’s theme seemed in danger of being upstaged by one of Atlantic’s prized off-spring.


Despite more than two dozen other million-selling recording artists on the bill--including the Bee Gees, who were making their first live appearance since 1979--the estimated 20,000 fans at the Garden appeared obsessed with Zeppelin.

By the time the British band called its quits shortly after the 1980 death of drummer John Bonham, Zeppelin, a prototype for thousands of heavy-metal and hard-rock bands, had surpassed the Rolling Stones and the Who as rock’s most popular live act.

The surviving members--guitarist Jimmy Page, singer Robert Plant and bassist John Paul Jones--reunited for 1985’s Live Aid concert in Philadelphia, but Saturday’s performance was even more prized because Bonham’s son, Jason, sat in with the band.

The wait ended shortly after 1 a.m. Sunday when the four musicians stepped on stage to thunderous applause. Opening with “Kashmir,” a concert number, the musicians exhibited a determination and precision that reflected the blend of celebration and tension of their music a decade ago. Page’s body twisted and jerked so perfectly with the shifts in the music that he seemed connected electronically to the guitar.

After three more numbers, including “Misty Mountain” and “Whole Lotta Love,” Zeppelin closed with “Stairway to Heaven,” the anthem built around a peculiar blend of tenderness and explosion.

“It’s been a wonderful night . . . ,” Plant told the crowd. “See you all again soon.” For many Zeppelin enthusiasts, the words, coupled with the power of the set itself, carried the hint of a full-scale reunion tour, but Plant was referring to his own U.S. solo tour, an aide later explained.

If the Zeppelin appearance threatened initially to overshadow the other aspects of the tribute, the triumphant performance by this white quartet from England--which was hugely influenced by black American music--only served to dramatize the influence and richness of Atlantic’s early musical vision.

Launched in an office only 20 blocks from the Garden, Atlantic--along with Sun Records and Chess Records--popularized and defined rock ‘n’ roll in the ‘50s. While Atlantic also specialized in jazz, its most important early contribution was a customized brand of urban pop and blues that became a cornerstone of rhythm and blues.

Airplay was limited at first to radio stations specializing in black music. Some of it was denounced as a bad influence on young people, but records by such great Atlantic artists as Ray Charles, the Drifters, Ruth Brown and LaVern Baker eventually caught the ear of white teen-age America and a revolution in pop was born. The bright, hook-conscious Atlantic sound not only served as a partial blueprint for Motown, but also influenced countless white rock musicians in England and America.

Of the three key ‘50s labels, only Atlantic continued as a power beyond the early ‘60s. Co-founder Ahmet Ertegun, son of a Turkish ambassador to the United States, worked with partner Jerry Wexler and others to expand the label’s scope to include scorching soul music (Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding), revolutionary British blues-rock (Cream) and visionary West Coast rock (Buffalo Springfield).

Joining in the anniversary celebration Saturday were pop, rock and jazz artists from every decade, including the Coasters, Ruth Brown and LaVern Baker from the ‘50s; Crosby, Stills and Nash, Wilson Pickett, Iron Butterfly, Vanilla Fudge and the Rascals from the ‘60s; Roberta Flack, Yes, Genesis, Foreigner, Manhattan Transfer and the Average White Band from the ‘70s, as well as ‘80s acts.

The Bee Gees, however, provided the evening’s most absorbing moments aside from Zeppelin. Badly in need of credibility as a live act after the backlash of its disco-affiliated “Saturday Night Fever” days, the trio served taut, tough-minded versions of three early hits, including “To Love Somebody” and “Lonely Days.”

Ertegun had been approached several times in recent years about an anniversary party, but turned down the proposals until Barry Cooper, president of Entertainment Company of America, came up with a concept that evolved into a 5-hour live broadcast Saturday on HBO, plus future off-shoots on MTV and ABC-TV. Also planned: a concert album, photo book and a home video. Profits, possibly $7 million to $10 million, will go to charity.

The quality of the acts Saturday varied greatly, a reminder of the fact that Atlantic has grown from the small back-room operation to an industry giant serving a broad range of musical tastes. Still, the lengthy concert was a frequently stirring certification of the power of a single vision in art.

In the nostalgic atmosphere backstage, hit makers like Wilson Pickett talked freely about the influence of early Atlantic releases on them. “Oh, I loved Atlantic,” he said. “We weren’t allowed to go to dances or buy the (R&B;) records because of church reasons. So, we’d go down the street and play them on the juke box. Now, it seems like the whole world is singing that music. It shows you times do change.”