Passenger on Flight 93 Inspires New Neil Young Song "Let's Roll"
By Steve Hochman
Special to The Los Angeles Times 12/5/01
A new Neil Young song paying tribute to the passengers on the hijacked United Airlines flight that crashed in Pennsylvania on Sept. 11 has been arriving on desks of rock radio programmers around the country this week with no advance notice or promotional fanfare.
"Let's Roll" was inspired by the words of passenger Todd Beamer, who called a GTE Airfone operator from the plane and told of the passengers' plan to storm the cockpit to overpower the terrorists.
As he set the phone down, the 32-year-old Oracle Corp. accounts manager reportedly said, "Let's roll." Moments later, Flight 93 plummeted into the western Pennsylvania countryside, killing all 45 people aboard but foiling the hijackers' presumed plan to strike a target in Washington, D.C.
Young wrote and recorded "Let's Roll" two weeks ago and it was rushed to radio by Reprise Records. "Neil saw an article on Todd Beamer and what happened," Young's manager, Elliot Roberts, said Monday.
"He wrote the song on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and recorded it the very next day with Booker T. & the MG's and Poncho [guitarist Frank Sampedro] of Crazy Horse. I went up there [to Young's Northern California ranch] that Sunday and came down with a copy of it on Monday."
On the record, Young sings over an insistent, dramatic, funk-rock beat:
I know I said I love you/
I know you know it's true/
I've got to put the phone down/
And do what we've got to do/
One standing in the aisle way/
Two more at the door/
We've got to get inside there/
Before they kill some more/
Time is running out/
The song premiered on radio the evening Roberts returned to L.A., with an airing by deejay Jim Ladd on KLOS-FM (95.5) before anyone from Reprise even knew the track existed. Two days later, Roberts took a copy to the company's Burbank headquarters to play for label executives.
Phil Costello, senior vice president of promotion, was among the first to hear it there and says it was decided by Roberts and Warner Bros./Reprise Chairman Tom Whalley to get it to radio as quickly as possible.
"Neil just wanted to get it out. We took the CD and started to burn copies here."
A team of secretaries was enlisted to help make the more than 400 copies and print up address labels into the night last Thursday.
The discs, with only the words "Neil Young Let's Roll" written by hand on the surface to identify them, were then packed into envelopes with no cover letter or press release. On Friday, the packages were put in the mail for Monday delivery.
Costello says the record has had positive receptions at key classic-rock stations around the U.S. But Jeff Pollack, a programming consultant for more than 100 stations, says the success of the song will not be measured simply in airplay.
"The song will have a sizable impact on rock stations," Pollack says. "But whether it becomes a hit or not is irrelevant. That's not [Young's] intention. It's simply a salute to heroism and, once again, something from Neil that says, 'Here's how I see it.' That's what makes it so authentic."
Roberts says the song will be on Young's next album, due in February or March, but at this time there are no plans for a commercial release of the single. Young is also making a personal donation to a Beamer family fund.
A Washington Post story about the song can be found at their site or at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
And before Neil Young's, Barry Preston offered his "Let's Roll" song. It can be found at his site.