"I just wanted to kill everybody in the room!" How Warning revitalised Skindred's career, gave us the iconic Newport Helicopter and confirmed them as British metal's greatest party band

Skindred in 2011
(Image credit: Mick Hutson/Redferns via Getty Images)

It's the part of Skindred’s live shows that has gone down in legend. We all know it’s coming and we all bloody love it. At some point - most likely at the end of the set - fans will hold their shirts aloft and whirl them around like the world’s most cost- effective method of air conditioning. But the band’s iconic Newport Helicopter didn’t come into being until a decade into their career – and, hard as it is to imagine, they faced an uphill battle even getting audiences moving when they first started out.

“It was like pulling teeth!” admits frontman Benji Webbe. “Like, ‘For fuck’s sake, put your hands in the air!’ Now every time we turn up somewhere, they treat us like it’s our hometown.” In 2011, the band were well on the way to cementing their reputation as metal’s most reliable party-starters. Although their 2002 debut, Babylon, did not chart domestically, it enjoyed success in the US when it topped the Billboard Top Reggae Albums Chart, while the singles Nobody and Pressure both earned Top 50 spots on the Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks chart.

“We spent about three years going over and touring there, so we clearly did something right,” Benji says. “We played Nobody on [Late Night With] Conan O’Brien [in 2004], which was huge for us. They might not have the history of the ska stuff like the UK does, but the audiences in the US just gravitated towards the heaviness. We’ve always been the weird kids in the class – we’re the alternative to the alternative!”

Keen to build on the success of Babylon, Skindred continued to make in-roads in the US with their next two records - 2007’s Roots Rock Riot and 2009’s Shark Bites And Dog Fights. Roots... peaked at No.6 on the US Heatseekers chart, but Shark Bites... stalled at No.21 on release. It also marked a rare period of instability for the band, whose line-up had remained fixed from the release of Babylon with Daniel Pugsley on bass, Mikey Demus on guitar and Arya Goggin on drums.

“At the time of Shark Bites... I was going through a lot of stuff,” Benji admits. “I left my wife and moved to Florida with someone else, so I was in a really different place. We were in the studio recording it, but it was quite difficult because even though I lived out there, the boys were basically away from home the whole time.”

Ahead of writing for their fourth record, Union Black, Benji moved back to the UK and the band reconvened in Bristol to start rehearsing. These sessions laid the groundwork for the band’s most important record to date, one that reaffirmed their core values and gave them anthems that would dominate sets for years to come. Some songs came easier than others, however.

“We’d had this brilliant rehearsal and I left that night like, ‘Right, I’m gonna get this one done’ and basically came up with the whole of Warning there and then,” remembers Benji. “So I walk back into the rehearsal room the next day like a peacock, like, ‘I’ve got it!’ I put a demo on I’d made up and the band looked at me like I’d shit in their faces.”

A blow-up ensued, as Benji explained the finer merits of the track to the band and things got heated. The rest of the band ultimately opted to exit the studio for a coffee run, leaving Benji to ruminate on the song he was so fiercely trying to sell them. “I was just by myself with this pent-up anger,” Benji recalls. “I just wanted to fucking kill everybody in the room! So the lyrics of Warning were basically me being so pissed off that I wanted to explode. When the boys came back, I sang the lyrics to them and they were like, ‘Now that is fucking cool.’ But it’s just funny that it came from this anger about my bandmates not getting it. I’m so glad that the boys thought it was shit though, as that made me rewrite, and that rewrite made it Warning.”

Decamping to London, Skindred booked time at Britannia Row Studios to record Union Black. But while Benji’s rewrite had brought Warning closer to completion, he was still struggling to nail the final elements, including a bridge that would help the whole thing come together. Thankfully, by this point he had plenty of friends in the industry to call on for advice - in this case, Papa Roach frontman Jacoby Shaddix, whom he’d met backstage at Ozzfest in Milton Keynes almost a decade earlier.

“My old band Dub War were dying a death and Skindred hadn’t really fully come into being yet,” Benji reminisces. “Jacoby came up like, ‘Hey man, are you the guy from Dub War?’ and we got to chatting. About a year later Skindred were playing a festival in Florida and he came up and was like, ‘We need to go out on the road together’, which ended up happening a bit further down the line. We got pretty close.” 

Close enough that when Benji called Jacoby and explained he was struggling with a killer new song he’d written, the Papa Roach frontman offered to fly over to London and help out. “He was actually in Paris at the time,” Benji says happily. “Straight away, he heard the song and said, ‘I’ve got it: You better tread lightly.’ Straight away I knew that was it, get this man a mic so he can sing it! For me that was the icing on the cake, getting Jacoby to sing his part.”

Jacoby wasn’t the only guest Benji had his sights on for Union Black, either: “I’m fucking sick of Corey Taylor telling me ‘No’!” he jokes with a cackle. MHR382.storybehind.indd

“I’m a massive, massive Slipknot fan and I’ve always loved his voice, so pretty much every album we try to send feelers out, like, ‘Is Corey available?’ but he just can’t get to us. It’s funny, I don’t really like features, but I would make an exception for someone like Corey Taylor!”

Sans Corey, Skindred recorded Union Black and released it on April 25 2011. This time, the band’s chart success was reversed; in the UK the album peaked at No.54, but failed to make the US Billboard chart entirely. Nonetheless, Warning, the opening track proper - after a drum’n’bass instrumental intro - set the tone for a reinvigorated Skindred.

Union Black for me was the album where we laid down what we’re all about,” Benji admits. “The opening track is the British national anthem in a drum’n’bass remix. It’s such a British record, collecting these uplifting songs to bring people together through the sound of music.”

Two months after Union Black was released, Skindred were set to play the 2011 edition of Download Festival. Their third appearance at Castle Donington, the band already had an idea of what to expect and what they were going to do while onstage, with new member Dan Sturgess serving as a DJ and opening possibilities for the band to have fun with the crowd.

But when they got to Download, they found one plan had to be abandoned. “We were backstage at Download Festival when this security briefing went out: we need to stop the wall of deaths,” Benji recalls. “We were pissed off because it was such a huge crowd, we kind of had to do it!”

Rather than give up, Benji thought on his feet - and came up with an iconic idea that would become a staple of their gigs. “There was this song years back on MTV [Raise Up by Petey Pablo], where it has this line, ‘North Carolina, come on and raise up / take your shirt off... spin it like a helicopter’,” Benji recalls. “That came into my head when I was thinking about that big breakdown in Warning. So I was like, ‘I wonder if I can get these heavy metal fuckers to do that?’”

Sure enough, thousands of fans soon had their shirts swinging and the band had etched out their own unique slice of Donington history. “I never thought it’d go so well,” Benji marvels. “People get so excited just for that now – it’s the eighth wonder of the world!”

More than a decade later and the idea of seeing Skindred not do the Newport Helicopter is akin to seeing Iron Maiden without Eddie. And as the band prepare to bring the move to their biggest headline gig to date – Wembley Arena in March 2024 – Benji admits there’s something he’s even prouder of.

“I pinch myself at the start of every album cycle because I can’t believe we’ve still got the same line-up,” he admits. “It’s breathtaking to me that we’re still family. It’s all coming up Skindred now, man, things have never been so good. The tortoise and the hare comes to mind – he won in the end didn’t he? Fuck ’em.”

Originally printed in Metal Hammer #382

Rich Hobson

Staff writer for Metal Hammer, Rich has never met a feature he didn't fancy, which is just as well when it comes to covering everything rock, punk and metal for both print and online, be it legendary events like Rock In Rio or Clash Of The Titans or seeking out exciting new bands like Nine Treasures, Jinjer and Sleep Token.