It begins with a storm rolling in, shattering glass heralding murder and rape, blowing away the defenses that smaller men than Mick Jagger build for themselves. "Gimme Shelter" isn't just the best song the Stones ever recorded — it's a howling force of nature so powerful that the National Weather Service should track it on radar. Let It Bleed was recorded as the 1960s were collapsing. The Rolling Stones were in turmoil. Original guitarist Brian Jones played just a little percussion and autoharp on the album (he left the group and died during the sessions), and new guitarist Mick Taylor filled in on two tracks. Ry Cooder and Al Kooper appear, but Charlie Watts doesn't even drum on "You Can't Always Get What You Want." Keith Richards took lead vocals on "You Got the Silver" because an engineer accidentally erased Jagger's version. Amid the chaos, Richards played more guitar than ever and made sure the album had everything the Stones were best at: deep blues ("Love in Vain"), twisted country ("Country Honk") and gutbucket rock ("Monkey Man"). This is the sound of the world coming to an end. "Let It Bleed" offers sympathy, in that slutty, decadent way that was the Stones' specialty ("You can bleed on me"). Then comes "Midnight Rambler," which Jagger sings like a stalker ready to stab you in the throat. Whether it was spiritual, menstrual or visceral, the Stones made sure you went home covered in blood.
This story is from the Spetember 2, 2004 issue of Rolling Stone.