If 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. Cox said:
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 favourite.
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.