you're reading this, you are almost certainly familiar with the
term melonfarmer and its significance. For those of you
who aren't, it was used by director Alex Cox to re-dub the
expletive motherfucker in the version of Repo Man
he prepared specially for television.
According to Alex Cox
himself, this version came about after being called in to fix a
very bizarre re-edit that the studio had put together itself.
In an effort to explain the film,
someone had gone and shot an insert of the license plate of
the Chevy Malibu, and made the Hopi symbol dissolve into the
HEAD OF THE DEVIL!. He continued, They'd intercut static
shots of this license plate with shots of the car moving,
and it looked completely cheesy, worse than an Ed Wood film.
The much loved variant Cox put together - actually seven
minutes longer than the theatrical version - was finally made
available for the first time since its original broadcast on
BBC2 as part of
Masters Of Cinema's excellent Blu-ray release in February
2012, but did you ever wonder how the term came about? How do
you get from motherfucker to the euphemistic substitution
melonfarmer? Was the term ever used before the TV version
of Repo Man?
After the TV version was first broadcast and the phrase came
into the popular consciousness, the first thought of some film
enthusiasts was that it was taken from or somehow inspired by
the 1974 Charles Bronson film Mr. Majestyk. In that
movie, Bronson plays a water melon farmer who is threatened by
labour racketeers and gangsters who want to either drive him out
of business or kill him. They scare off his labourers and
machine gun his melons until stoic diplomacy just won't cut it
any more and he falls back on the plan B Bronson usually
employed throughout the seventies...kill everybody. There are
lots of melons on show, but at no time in Elmore Leonard's
screenplay is the term used as a substitute for the expletive.
All melonfarmers in the picture actually farm melons.
It wasn't until many years later, listening to the
soundtrack for the film Performance that I noticed
something that may finally explain the origin of the phrase.
Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg's film was extremely
controversial on its release in 1970 for its sex, nudity,
sadomasochistic violence and drug use, but what is not often
noted is that the controversy also extended to one of the
selections on the soundtrack. The song in question was the
spoken word piece Wake Up, Niggers! by The Last Poets.
In the film the track cut short, but if you listen to the full
version featured on the soundtrack record - and also on The Last
Poets eponymous debut album - the song includes the line,
...up against the wall black melonfarmer....
The film and the album date to 1970 making this the earliest
use of the phrase suggesting that the term was invented by The
Last Poets as a way to allude to the expletive without actually
using it. This would make sense because around the same time,
the proto-punk band MC5 ran into trouble when their debut
album Kick Out The Jams opened with the shout of Kick
Out The Jams, Motherfucker! leading to some controversy and
later copies of the record being censored.
Thinking that I'd made a connection no one else had noticed,
I searched around online for a summary of the lyrics for Wake
Up, Niggers! to confirm it. All sources claim that the words
for that line are not as I initially thought ...up against
the wall black melonfarmer..., but are actually ...up
against the wall black male and farmer....
So could that be it? Did the famous term actually come into
being after Alex Cox misheard a line from The Last Poets' song,
and in doing so accidentally coined a phrase that has persisted
to this day as an amusing euphemism...and the inspiration for
this very website?
When Alex Cox was asked about the films copious bad language
and how he felt about having to remove it all for the TV
version, he said:
By then I'd made Sid & Nancy and
I was sick of swearing. It was fun coming up with synonyms
for the swear words - 'Melon Farmers' was a particular
I don't think there is any doubt that Alex Cox invented the
phrase - since used by Samuel L. Jackson in the TV version of
Die Hard With A Vengeance - but has its ubiquitousness with
movie re-dubbing in the years since the TV version of Repo Man
led to a bit of self mythologising on Cox's part? To be honest
melonfarmer is the only really inventive substitution in
the TV version, far more so than the flip you and
variations on that that make up the majority of the other
substitutions. Was The Last Poets' track subconsciously at work
and pointing him in the right direction. I guess you'll have to
decide for yourself about that.