MACABRE images seemed to sum it all up.

Whether it was the spectacle of a 71-year-old bachelor in a pink suit looking like an embalmed holiday camp entertainer, the fact that he was cavorting with women a decade short of half his age, or just that he seemed to find nothing weird in any of this, is hard to state precisely. A simple question will do instead. What did the artist formerly known as bloody Cliff think he was doing?

His status as a national institution is a long-established and hideous fact of life. The chances of the Queen being spared an appearance by the wizened pixie during her Diamond Jubilee concert were always going to be nil. But did Cliff Richard feel no embarrassment or, come to that, shame? Did he not guess that prancing in pink through a "medley" is no way for a septuagenarian to carry on, that youth culture – such of it as he ever knew – long ago passed him by, that it's time to quit?

Obviously not. Not one among them, those sirs, dames and contenders for a gong, grasped that, Queen or no Queen, their behaviour verged on the insulting to anyone who still believes in the potency of music. Instead, we were supposed to smile fondly at the notion that Sir Cliff is "ageless", indulge the fact that Sir Paul can't hit the notes any more, or ignore what seemed to be Sir Elton's problem with his dentures. Worst of all, we were supposed to keep straight faces when BBC types mentioned rock'n'roll.

We knew the music had grown old and decadent. It's been around, after all, for almost as long as the Queen (since the last week in January 1956, and the release of Heartbreak Hotel, to be pedantic). The shock of the new is a thing of the past. Children and their parents, and sometimes their grandparents, are downloading the same tracks. No-one has been properly astonished by a new artist in a quarter of a century. Nevertheless, there used to be rules to rebellion, even a kind of decorum, and the rules were born of certain beliefs.

One small example. I used to review pop-type music for another paper. When I reached the grand old age of 30 I decided that enough was, in every sense, enough. I was too old.

My tastes had not become set in stone, or so I like to believe. I didn't, I hope, become one of those sad 50-somethings given to muttering that all "decent music" ended with punk. But I was no longer a teenager, the breed by and for whom the music was made. John Peel might have managed to remain fresh and true until the end. Too often I had a fair idea in advance whether I would enjoy an album. The show was over.

Granted, many things have changed, sometimes for the better. A worthwhile artist, a Dylan or a Leonard Cohen, can prove that advancing years need be no impediment to creativity. But these writers refuse to pretend, unlike the ghastly Sir Cliff or the sunken-cheeked Sir Paul, that they are still teenagers. Cohen, Dylan or Tom Waits can even yet surprise an audience. None of those all-round entertainers – that phrase used to be an insult – being patronised by the royals at Buck House even thought to make the attempt.

And what of all those nonsensical knighthoods? Cliff was always liable to end up in the honours system mortuary. Most of the rest would have been warned off by the guarantee of universal ridicule. It would have been thought absurd that a Beatle would wish to be known as Sir anything, least of all one whose former writing partner returned a mere MBE in protest against the Vietnam War. Would John Lennon have played the palace last week? You like to hope the idea would have been unthinkable. These days you can never be too sure.

No-one laughs at a Sir Paul, a Sir Elton, or even – although at least he remained in hiding the other night – a Sir Mick Jagger. Perhaps that simply means we get the music we deserve. If artists no longer make a pretence of rebellion, and no longer understand that aged nostalgia acts have nothing to do with rock'n'roll, perhaps they merely reflect a society grown steadily more conservative.

Strikingly, the younger acts were just as bland and banal as the senior citizens, all content to be adopted as pets by the royal house and exploited for the sake of Windsor plc. Few in the audience waving their little flags seemed to care.

If the history matters, you can probably date the moment at which the rot set in as July 13, 1985, and Live Aid. Forget all those impeccable humanitarian motives (although don't forget to ask how many singing millionaires made donations). This was the day when pop and rock joined the establishment, when self-regard and a sense of entitlement began to turn scruffs into figures – or so they came to believe – of importance. Remember, for one thing, that the Wembley show began with a rendition of God Save The Queen, and that Prince Charles and Diana were prominent among those laying claim to a share of the publicity.

Live Aid came towards the end of my so-called career in "rock" writing. Perhaps predictably, I earned a little abuse from certain readers for failing to enter the spirit of the thing. Suggesting that a few Ethiopians might have lived for a year on the money a certain act were spending on haircuts seemed to cause genuine offence. Then again, the urge to be rude arose from the feeling that there was something wrong with the whole affair. It wasn't the cause, but the sight of a pair of spoiled royals "helping the starving" while Bono became a saint before our eyes that reminded me of Dylan's favourite word in his 1960s' pomp: phoney.

Call it sentimentality, but a lot of adolescents once believed that spotting the fraudulent and the fake was the point of the music. Dylan got stuck with the labels "protest" and "political" mostly for saying that an older generation were hypocrites who talked of peace while plotting to blow up the world. Lennon also became obsessed with truth and lies. The Stones got into trouble – well-staged and well-publicised trouble, it's true – by appearing to pick fights with the guardians of conventional morality. Punk, as the cliche has it, was born out of alienation.

At the palace there was smugness as far as the camera's eye could see. There was self-congratulation and decrepitude in equal measure. Above all, there was a musical form reduced to a husk, to parody. In the case of the egregious Cliff, this hardly counted as a surprise. Unlike those who persist in mistaking him for a soul singer, I have never thought of Tom Jones as much more than a Vegas lounge act, meanwhile. But I yield to no-one where The Beatles are concerned. McCartney's tribute act – to himself, for symbolism's sake – was beyond sad.

Sir Paul is said to be worth around half a billion pounds. He has written and performed more hit songs than anyone. He has lived that famous rock'n'roll lifestyle. Why press on? For the knighthood, for another couple of million, to contest mortality, or because becoming one of those gruesome "national treasures" is addictive? One thing is plain enough: no-one is a cheeky chappie at the age of 69.

It's possible, nevertheless, that McCartney and the rest suffer no illusions. Perhaps they understand that rock'n'roll, with everything it was supposed to mean, was always a myth. Each of those involved in the Jubilee concert is in effect a corporate entity, the largest cog in a corporate entertainment machine. Perhaps they are cynical towards naivety and romance for a good reason. They understood the great rock'n'roll swindle from the start.

Does that also entitle them to produce banality, to deface their own legacies, to pick sides in what remains of our culture wars? Dylan has been loaded with honours, yet somehow manages to go on being perverse and curmudgeonly. Barack Obama gave him the Congressional Medal of Freedom a couple of weeks back. Yet Dylan didn't crack a smile, far less fawn over a president: he's seen plenty of those. His attitude towards politics and politicians remains intact: he doesn't trust them.

"Attitude", in all its forms, was essential even to the likes of Cliff Richard when he was starting out. It has gone or is going across each of the age groups served by the music business. This doesn't mean there was ever some sort of golden age, just that the habit of endorsing the status quo unthinkingly has become endemic. People who once changed the world now hesitate to mention politics. No doubt the sponsors would complain.

The Jubilee concert was distinguished by actual bowing and scraping. Those presenting themselves as subjects might retort that they are genuine monarchists, like a great many other people. That's not the point. When did rock'n'roll, as once it was, acquire the values of a Royal Variety Performance? When The Beatles did one of those, Lennon joked, famously, that all the rich sorts present shouldn't applaud but simply rattle their jewellery.

No-one is suggesting that an aged monarch is liable to be subjected to songs of republican rage during one of her stage-managed national occasions. There would be no point: she wouldn't get it. Some of the performers deployed as her loyal troupe of Jubilee minstrels know better, however. Some of them know what they once were, and where their music came from, and how it related to its audience. It is as though some secret decree has been promulgated: after punk, never again.

Clearly, you have to guard against the power of myths. The music of the 1960s and 1970s was the music of my childhood and adolescence. Some of it was without parallel or precedent. On the other hand, some of it was Cliff, Engelbert and Val Doonican. Ken Dodd was regarded as a serious hit-maker in the golden 1960s, and more copies of The Sound Of Music soundtrack were sold in 1965 and 1966 than anything produced by The Beatles or the Stones.

Nevertheless, there is an important truth. Tension existed, as it must, between old and new, dissident and conservative. Two worlds were in collision. The Jubilee concert, one giant sedative, seemed to prove that the old battles are over, that music is just another leisure choice designed never to offend anyone. The irony would be that this fact, above all others, made the event profoundly offensive. The event, its stars, organisers and patron seemed to say that there is no room left for radicalism in British life.

Where music is concerned I've been wrong before, I'm proud to say. When things get this bad, it tends to mean that something interesting is about to happen. One part of the rock legend has it, after all, that Dylan and The Beatles first appeared when pop had reached a nadir. Buddy Holly was dead, Elvis was in the army, and tedium prevailed. For what it's worth, I'll clutch at that sort of straw.

Still, all of those busy boasting of the glories of British culture this year should take another look at the Jubilee farrago. By common consent, we once did pop music better than anyone. At the palace, you would have to have been deaf to maintain that conviction. More than once, unprompted, I was ready to cover my ears and eyes. That way you can forget you've just been robbed.

Ian Bell's book, Once Upon a Time: The Lives of Bob Dylan, the first of two volumes, will be published by Mainstream later in the summer

The Jubilee concert, one giant sedative, seemed to prove

that the old battles are over, that music is just another

leisure choice designed never to offend anyone