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If you wanted to point to a classic rock band whose songs were played to death in movies and TV shows, you’d go with The Rolling Stones. You can’t think of Martin Scorsese soundtracks without thinking of the Stones (see: Mean Streets, Goodfellas). But the opposite is the case with Led Zeppelin.

Prior to 2000, it was unheard of for a Zeppelin song to appear in a movie or TV episode. When Wayne and Garth learned about the guitar store’s ban on “Stairway to Heaven” in Wayne’s World (1992), you didn’t even hear two notes of that epic track. It would have been too expensive.

That changed a bit in the 21st century, though Led Zeppelin remains one of the toughest bands for film producers to get on soundtracks. David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook) and Ben Affleck (Argo) both learned that the hard way in the second decade of this century.

In 2001, the Zep allowed The Sopranos to use a classic track from Led Zeppelin IV (1971). It was one of the first times a TV show had ever featured a Zep song. But even in that case you can only hear the song playing in the background.

Led Zeppelin’s ‘Rock and Roll’ plays in a ‘Sopranos’ Season 3 episode

'Sopranos' publicity still
Steven Van Zandt as Silvio Dante, James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano and Tony Sirico as Paulie Walnuts star in “The Sopranos.” | HBO

Season 3 of The Sopranos is a big one for Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli). In episode 3, the nephew of Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) finally gets his button, becoming “a made man” of the New Jersey mob. And Christopher is feeling good about the situation.

Not long after getting made, Christopher and an associate make an appearance at the Ooh-Fa pizzeria. Christopher wears a three-piece suit and shades as he enters the neighborhood spot. And what are the pizza guys listening to on the radio? Led Zeppelin.

You don’t hearing it blasting out of the speakers, but in the background plays “Rock and Roll.” The opening lines, sung by Robert Plant, come on just as Christopher enters the pizzeria. (“Been a long time since the rock and roll.”) And the Zep tracks plays for nearly two minutes.

Sure, it isn’t the full-throttle Zep experience you get from the album version or The Song Remains the Same, but it sets the scene well enough. And that’s more than The Sopranos could manage with a Beatles song.

Led Zeppelin might charge filmmakers near $1 million to use a song

Led Zeppelin posed at the band jet
Led Zeppelin band members pose in front of an their private airliner, The Starship, 1973. | Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Classic Riff That Inspired the Beatles’ ‘I Feel Fine’ and Led Zeppelin’s ‘Moby Dick’

When you’re talking about music in films and TV shows, you have to trace ownership of the copyright. In the case of Zeppelin tracks, there was never a question of how the music would be used because the songwriters (mostly Jimmy Page) controlled their use.

Russel found that out when he contacted the band’s representatives about using a Led Zeppelin II track in Silver Linings Playbook (2012). According to the L.A. Times, the band had charged “in the neighborhood of a seven-figure fee” for such requests.

Russell’s small budget couldn’t meet that fee, so he tried to appeal to the band’s artistic side. “You have to be like a man determined to marry somebody,” Russell told the Times. “You keep coming back humbly, […] asking, ‘May I please show you the film? Do you know how much this means?’ […] Otherwise, you won’t get the song.”

Russell got his song (“What Is and What Should Never Be”), but it didn’t come easy. Obviously, he won’t be the last filmmaker to go through that process. Two decades ago, producers of The Sopranos became among the first to feature one of rock’s most revered bands on the soundtrack.