“The Lemon Song,” included on the 1969 album Led Zeppelin II, is another of Led Zeppelin’s homages to the blues. On these sorts of tracks, Robert Plant was never content to take lyrics from just one source, but for the most part “The Lemon Song” draws on Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor.” According to Led Zeppelin: The Complete Guide To Their Music by Dave Lewis, on Led Zeppelin’s first American tour in 1969 they regularly included “Killing Floor” in their sets. Following that tour, however, they performed the song as “The Lemon Song” and recorded it under that title for Led Zeppelin II with songwriting credits given to Jimmy Page and Robert Plant.
The first, second and fourth verses of “The Lemon Song,” however, are clearly recognizable from Howlin’ Wolf’s original song.
In 1972, ARC music sued Led Zeppelin, claiming that they had plagiarized Howlin’ Wolf and a settlement was reached out of court. Chester Burnett (Howlin’ Wolf’s real name) is now given songwriting credit for “The Lemon Song”.
Some of Robert Plant’s lyrics for “The Lemon Song” are not from “Killing Floor,” but rather from other classic blues songs. The phrase “you take my money, give it to another man” could have been taken from “Black Eye Blues” by Ma Rainey. Then, of course, is Robert Johnson’s lemon phallic reference from his 1937 song “Traveling Riverside Blues,” which became one of Robert Plant’s signature lyrics (Squeeze me, baby, until the juice runs down my leg/The way you squeeze my lemon/I’m gonna fall right outta bed) Plant often inserted these lines into other songs during live performances. On BBC Sessions, Robert Plant used them in “How Many More Times” and “Communication Breakdown”, and Dave Lewis points out that he often included this in the “Whole Lotta Love” medley during live shows.
Some time ago I had argued that Robert Johnson should also be credited for “The Lemon Song,” but I no longer hold that view. First, Robert Johnson was not the first to use a lemon as a sexual image in his music. In the 1929 song “I Want It Awful Bad,” Joe Williams had included the lines “You squeezed my lemon/Caused my juice to run.” Several artists used the image in 1930s, including Roosevelt Sykes in his 1937 song “She Squeezed My Lemon,” as well as Memphis Minnie and Sonny Boy Williamson I. Second, Led Zeppelin did provide an acknowledgement of sorts for Robert Johnson. They performed “Traveling Riverside Blues” as part of their live repertoire, and it is included on BBC Sessions, The first box set, and as a bonus track on the version of Coda included in The Complete Studio Recordings. Led Zeppelin’s version of “Traveling Riverside Blues” includes substantial original contributions from Led Zeppelin and the songwriting credits are properly listed as “Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, Robert Johnson.” Third, Robert Plant changed Robert Johnson’s in a significant way. Robert Johnson’s lyrics from “Traveling Riverside Blues” are as follows:
Now you can squeeze my lemon ’til the juice run down my…
spoken: ‘Til the juice run down my leg, baby, you know what I’m talkin’ ’bout.
You can squeeze my lemon ’til the juice run down my leg
spoken: That’s what I’m talkin’ ’bout, now
But I’m goin’ back to Friars Point, if I be rockin’ to my head
The reference to falling out of bed comes instead from “Stop Messin’ Round” from Fleetwood Mac’s 1968 album Mr Wonderful.
I want you to squeeze a me, baby, ’til my face turns cherry red
You roll me so hard, baby, I’m fallin’ out of bed, now
Led Zeppelin were clearly fans of Fleetwood Mac, particularly when that band was primarily a blues band under the leadership of Peter Green. Fleetwood Mac’s influence played a role not only in “The Lemon Song,” but in “Rock and Roll” and “Black Dog,” as well. Still, Robert Plant gave Robert Johnson credit.
That line “squeeze my lemon ’til the juice runs down my leg” was just so indicative of that person Robert Johnson…. It’s borrowed, admittedly, but why not? I would really like to think that someone who heard that… would go out and listen to Robert Johnson as a result. But I wish I’d written that, I really do.
Other influences are evident in “The Lemon Song,” as well, which are worth mentioning even if they don’t warrant changing the songwriting credits. Dave Lewis points out that the arrangement of “The Lemon Song” is similar to Albert King’s “Crosscut Saw,” from his 1967 album Born Under a Bad Sign. Robert Plant often performed “Crosscut Saw” with the Honeydrippers after his days with Led Zeppelin.
Another influence that’s interesting to note is the Electric Flag, who included a version of “Killing Floor” on their debut album A Long Time Comin’, which was released in 1968. Though the Electric Flag stayed true to Howlin’ Wolf’s lyrics, their version of the song opens with a brief segment of Lyndon Johnson’s “And We Shall Overcome” address to Congress in 1965. The Electric Flag then interrupt Johnson’s oratory with laughter before the music commences. Though this introduction is brief, its effect is to change the meaning of the song entirely. A “killing floor” in classic blues lyrics often referred to a slaughterhouse. On a literal level, many black migrants from the South found jobs in slaughterhouses working on the killing floor. This image was incorporated into blues songs as having hit rock bottom, particularly in the context of a difficult relationship with a woman. By introducing the track in such a satirical way, the Electric Flag alter the meaning of the killing floor. In the Electric Flag’s version of the song, the killing floor becomes the Vietnam War and the urban unrest of the 1960s. Led Zeppelin didn’t attempt this sort of commentary in their version of “Killing Floor” but they had clearly heard the Electric Flag’s version of the song. Jimmy Page’s guitar solo bears some similarity to the Electric Flag’s solo and Robert Plant uses an Electric Flag variant of the lyrics. Where Howlin’ Wolf referred to his “first mind” in the second verse of “Killing Floor,” the Electric Flag sang,
If I hada listened to my second mind
You know I wouldn’t be here now, people
Down on the killin’ floor
Robert Plant followed these lyrics
I should have listened, baby, to my second mind
Everytime I go away and leave ya, darlin’
Send me the blues way down the line
To be fair, in “The Lemon Song” Led Zeppelin took a number of influences to produce something that was uniquely theirs. Still, they drew heavily enough on one source, Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor,” to be forced to change the songwriting credits under threat of legal action. In his scathingly negative review of Led Zeppelin II in Rolling Stone when the album was initially released in 1969, John Mendelsohn took exception to Led Zeppelin’s blues posturing. Mendelsohn’s review is laced with sarcasm and reveals a lot about why Led Zeppelin acquired such a bad reputation with the rock press, particularly with regard to the issue of plagiarism. To Mendelsohn, Led Zeppelin’s heavy interpretation of the blues was a bastardization of a vaunted form. That Robert Plant’s lyrics would quote so freely from the original sources while the instrumental parts had lost the essence of the original was grounds for ridicule to Mendelsohn. Plant later stated that he thought that Mendelsohn “was just a frustrated musician. Maybe I’m just flying on my own little ego ship, but sometimes people seem to resent talent.”
In recent years, critics have tended to be kinder to Led Zeppelin. A 2003 special edition of Q magazine on Led Zeppelin had this to say about “The Lemon Song,” “‘Forgetting’ to credit [Howlin’ Wolf] almost landed Zeppelin in court, but in truth the electrifying combination of Bonham’s sledgehammer drums and Page’s dazzling solo makes it entirely their own.” Had Led Zeppelin been better about citing their sources, they may not have met with such hostility from rock journalists in their early years and it may not have taken such a long time for the rock press to evaluate Led Zeppelin’s music on its own terms.